By Jeff Keeling
The elephant named school consolidation didn’t leave the room when Washington County Commissioners took major steps toward funding a combined $40 million in school capital needs Monday night – it got harder to move.
With its decision, the commission also guaranteed nearly the same amount for Johnson City Schools’ capital needs, due to the formula requiring equitable distribution of county property tax revenues when they’re used for school construction. City school leaders can be expected to continue planning future construction and renovation projects in relative isolation from the county’s population demographics, despite the need for the city and county to act as one when it comes to the future of K-12 education.
With each multimillion dollar building constructed on the separate system model, our overall community loses another opportunity to maximize limited resources. Strip away (in the case of schools) the irregularly shaped political boundaries known as the Johnson City limits, and addressing projected growth and decline in student populations around the entire county becomes a much easier exercise.
Addressing those demographics most effectively is probably impossible without school consolidation, though. And it seems that at some point within the past year, consolidation moved from being a worthwhile (albeit controversial) topic of discussion to something unmentionable.
Last July, Johnson City Commissioner David Tomita, who also serves on the county commission, called for a task force to study consolidation.
Within a few months, the word “consolidation” had been dropped from the effort. The group’s efforts continue and may indeed bear some fruit. Its leadership reckoned early on that a few small victories – say, in shared purchasing between the systems, or cooperative career technical education endeavors – might enlighten doubters to the wider possibilities of inter-system collaboration. There is merit to such an approach, but subsequent events suggest it may have represented an overabundance of caution.
The latest attempt at a collaborative effort between the school systems specifically focuses on the proposed new Boones Creek K-8 school. It seems a worthy effort, but when it was inaccurately reported the group would study “consolidation,” the ensuing consternation told me all I need to know about many elected leaders’ fear of the “C-word.”
In a county budget committee meeting following the kerfuffle, committee member Todd Hensley voted in favor of a statement clarifying that the committee wasn’t studying consolidation, but he repeated his contention that leaders should be discussing consolidation in addition to less far-reaching collaborative efforts.
“Nobody wants to have that discussion, which is unfortunate, because it has to ultimately happen,” Hensley said. “It will ultimately happen Whether the people in power right now are here then or gone, I don’t know. But nobody wants to have the discussion. And it’s not about penalizing the city, or scaring the city. The teachers are not going to lose, because we’re going to bring our (teachers’ pay) up to the level of the city teachers. We’re probably not going to need fewer teachers, but that will be driven by the number of students – there may be some small change.
“Who it threatens is the administration, and that’s a long process. This is not something we can do in a year, probably in two years, but if we can’t start even talking about it, how we are ever going to get there?”
Despite all the challenges it would entail, consolidation is and will remain a worthy topic of study. Done right – not cheaply, but right – it offers our community its best, most cost-effective long-term opportunity to provide a high-quality educational opportunity to all its children. I find it unfortunate so many leaders currently act as though it’s a dirty word.