JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – With the ball in Johnson City’s court on a school capital funding agreement with Washington County, a growing number of people are urging city commissioners not to play.
Earlier this week, Johnson City Board of Education Chairman Tim Belisle made clear his opposition to a compromise funding deal approved by the Washington County Commission. Now, PTA members and a former city mayor are among others pressing for the Johnson City Commission to reject the proposed agreement.
“I want the city to reject it, because I don’t feel that it’s prudent for our school system now and for the future,” said Helen Harmon, South Side School’s PTA treasurer and an active member of the city wide PTA.
At issue is the county’s departure from the traditional revenue-sharing model around school capital projects. When cities have separate school districts and counties are building schools, they traditionally borrow enough to provide an additional share to the city system proportional to the city’s share of total students in the county.
Because Washington County isn’t borrowing the money for a planned $32 million Jonesborough K-8 school – the Town of Jonesborough is – its legal counsel has said those rules don’t apply. Instead of borrowing about $60 million and providing the city schools with $28 million in one chunk, the county is offering $12.5 million — at $500,000 annually over 25 years.
“I myself am a parent of a first grader,” Harmon said. “She’s going to be in the Johnson City schools for years to come, so with the capital funding needs that the school system has currently and potentially in the future, what does this type of decision mean for that?”
The city school system has enough cash flow from its “Peoples Education Plan” fund, which comes from a quarter cent sales tax, to pay for expansions at three elementary schools. The $23 million or so needed for a desired new school to replace Towne Acres Elementary, though, isn’t affordable without additional funds.
That larger school — or a less expensive expansion of the existing, 54-year-old Towne Acres — is an important part of the plan to revert to a K-5 elementary scheme and turn the 5-6 Indian Trail Intermediate School and the 7-8 Liberty Bell Middle School into two 6-8 middle schools.
PTA members are calling on parents and teachers to turn out en masse at a school board meeting set for 6 p.m. Monday at city hall, wearing red. Speaking of red, the Jonesborough school deal, which relies on a United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan, has former Johnson City mayor Pete Paduch seeing it.
“The standard has been that way for decades,” Paduch said Friday. “The county now wants to go around that, they don’t want to do it, and they’ve gotten the town of Jonesborough to join in with their scam and say ‘well, let Jonesborough borrow the money, that way we’re not borrowing it.'”
Paduch said he’s hoping the Johnson City Commission will send the proposal – crafted over several months by Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy and Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson – back to the drawing board. In case they don’t, he’s been setting the stage for a potential legal challenge and making sure USDA officials know the story behind the loan.
“I hired an attorney,” Paduch said. “He did research. We’re still of the same opinion.”
Paduch has also contacted USDA, reaching the federal level and a staff attorney in Little Rock, Ark. “They need to understand they’re loaning money to a town that doesn’t even have a school system,” he said. “Now we can do better with federal funds than that, just simply to circumvent the city their fair share.”
Filing a lawsuit is not his preference, Paduch said, adding that he’d need to enlist more city taxpayers as plaintiffs if he did go that route.
“You have to see how it all plays out and I’m just hoping that the city commissioners comes to their senses and listens to the members of the board of education.”