BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL)- Sullivan County leaders are at odds over how to improve access to a soon-to-be-completed high school.
The narrow, hilly roads leading up to West Ridge High School have been a safety concern and topic of discussion since 2016. Now there are about six months until the new high school opens. Current estimates suggest 1,700 to 1,900 students could be enrolled at West Ridge.
On Tuesday night, the Sullivan County Commission rejected the Board of Education’s latest proposal to take out $6 million in general obligation bonds and purchase land for an access road.
The proposal involved purchasing an 8-acre plot of land between Second Harvest Food Bank and West Ridge High School to build an access route off Jericho Drive. A gravel driveway connecting the back of the school to Henry Harr Road was also part of the plan.
County commissioners voted 15-2 against the proposal on Tuesday, with six commissioners absent and another abstaining.
“We’re disappointed that they chose not to support our resolution to build the access road. I feel that they have accepted the responsibility for safely getting our students to school,” said Board of Education Chairman Randall Jones.
Also disappointed is Sullivan County Director of Schools Dr. David Cox.
“We’re at a very critical point in time. We have kids that will being going to that school August 9th,” said Cox. “So the board’s sense of urgency was to try to do something since nothing else had been done. The ball is now squarely in the court of the commissioners to come up with a solution.”
In January, a previous proposal for the West Ridge road also failed to receive the County Commission’s approval after legal concerns were raised over the public-private partnership the plan required.
Several commissioners, such as Dwight King, had further concerns about the latest proposal discussed on Tuesday.
“There was no plans, no estimates, no costs, nothing. All they were wanting to do is issue $6 million [in bonds]. I didn’t feel like it was a good option for the county to spend that kind of money. And it’s school money, but it’s still taxpayers’ money,” King said.
Another issue commissioners saw – the land for the road would have been purchased from a private business group that includes former county highway commissioner Jim Belgeri.
“That’s what the commissioners were worried about, is it a conflict of interest?” said King.
Plans will move forward to widen existing parts of Lynn Road in front of the high school to make it safer. Current highway commissioner Scott Murray says this has been his plan all along.
“We want to [widen it to] 24 feet of pavement, and also we’re allowed to get six feet of shoulder, three feet on each side,” said Murray.
Now the question is – will improvements be done on time?
“Hopefully we can get this widened, get it opened up for the opening of the new high school. I feel pretty confident we can get it done,” he said.
King believes the Lynn Road improvements should leave enough room for traffic to safely pass through.
“The Highway Department has got money in their budget to do it with. It’s going to cost a whole lot less than $6 million to do that,” said King.
But without an access road, Cox is still worried it won’t be enough.
“Widening Lynn Road certainly will help. No doubt about that. We’re very thankful for that. But I don’t think it’s going to ameliorate all the concerns about the volume of traffic,” he said.
Jones said constructing the gravel driveway leading to the back of the high school was still a future possibility.
“Hopefully that will still happen,” he said. “But that will require County Commission approval also if we use our fund balance to pay for that.”