BLOUNTVILLE — A veteran Sullivan County educator said her school’s teachers and other employees received a “gut punch” recently when they learned through a newspaper article that their school could close two years earlier than expected.
However, county Board of Education Chairman Michael Hughes said the issue was handled that way to be sure the system followed Tennessee’s “Sunshine Law” requirements.
Blountville Middle School eighth-grade English teacher Leslie Carr said during the Dec. 4 county school board public comment session that it made no sense to close Blountville or two other schools as “sacrificial lambs” any earlier than 2021 or whenever West Ridge High School opens. Blountville Middle, Holston Middle and Innovation Academy of Northeast Tennessee are to move to the Sullivan Central High building.
Carr said a bus driver brought the news into the school Friday morning, Nov. 30, and sent teachers and other employees scrambling to the article on the Kingpsort Times News website or get a print edition of the paper.
The current Central High building is to become Sullivan Central Middle when West Ridge takes all Sullivan North and South high school students and most or possibly all Central students, with some Central zone students possibly going to Sullivan East High. Closing Blountville Middle would save an estimated $654,500 a year, part of nearly $1.4 million that also closing Innovation Academy and the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8 combined would save.
Grades 6-8 from Sullivan Gardens would go to Colonial Heights Middle until the new Sullivan South Middle, currently South High, is ready after West Ridge opens. Nobody spoke Tuesday against closing the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8. Only Carr spoke against closing Blountville early, but a group of students, parents and teachers urged the board not close IA, a grades 6-8 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school housed inside Holston Middle.
IA was not planned to close but was slated to move into Central Middle along with Blountville and Holston middle schools. School system officials emphasized no decision has been made on the closings, and Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski and Hughes since then have said they doubt the board would vote on the closing options at the January board meeting.
CARR DECRIES “GOOD MORNING GUT PUNCH”
Carr said that the Blountville Middle faculty and staff “received a good morning gut punch” with no prior notification the morning of Nov. 30 when the Kingsport Times News published a story about the options from a public day-long BOE retreat. Hughes said that the board had to abide by the Tennessee Sunshine Law and that he did not believe giving prior notification to the school communities would have been proper before the matter went before the BOE at the retreat. Hughes also said the board has not yet made a decision to close any schools.
Carr also said some parents near Bristol simply won’t have gas money to get their kids to athletic, band or other extracurricular activities at Holston and that the community uses Blountville Middle, which she said also shares a heating and cooling system with Blountville Elementary on the same campus. Although it was built in the 1930s like Sullivan Gardens, Carr said her school is “very physically sound.”
Carr also questioned the expense of moving the operation of three schools to temporary quarters and then moving them again when the new high school opens.
CLOSING THE NEWEST AND OLDEST THE BEST PLAN?
Ironically, IA is the newest school or school program in the county system, having started in 2012 as a joint program with Kingsport City Schools and becoming a county-only program in 2014 when KCS left the partnership. On the other end of the spectrum, the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8, the former Sullivan West High in Sullivan Gardens in a building part of which dates to 1931, is the oldest county school in operation, just a bit older than Blountville Middle and Bluff City, both of which are scheduled to close in 2021.
However, Carr said renovations at Blountville, which Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski recently pointed out were done while Blountville Middle students temporarily attended Holston Middle, have made that building structurally sound and said energy savings may not be so great since the middle school shares heating and cooling with adjoining Blountville Elementary.
In the eastern area of the county, Bluff City Middle is to close in December of 2019 and its students to be shifted, along with Holston Valley Middle, Bluff City Middle and the middle school portion of Mary Hughes School in Piney Flats, to the new East Middle in January 2020.
Blountville Middle, IA and the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8 also could be closed and would save an estimated amount of almost $1.4 million a year. That would help offset the annual $1.6 million loss in renovation funds from the Couunty Commission and about $350,000 in annual costs for adding school resource officers to every school campus in the county.
“We shouldn’t tarnish the system as a whole by depleting the best, by depleting the top,” IA parent James Roberts of Bluff City said, adding that he initially was not sure IA was a fit for his son but that IA has a welcoming atmosphere and culture conducive to learning in general and STEM in particular.