A Little Common Sense Goes A Long Way

It is almost that time of year when thoughts turn to spring cleaning. Out with the old and in with the new. Same goes with local and state junk. The stuff that clouds the mind and provides obstacles to we the people getting where we want to go is on the table for a good sifting through and disposal of the trash that is mucking up the big picture. The cold dreary days of winter brought some disturbing news to Jefferson County in the form of a $61 million dollar needs list for Jefferson County Schools. Already we have a County Commission that is balking on spending a cool million on a new office for the Mayor and Finance Department. I am certain that the $61 million dollar needs assessment made many of the financial stewards of Jefferson County swallow hard and I must admit that I,also, choked a little on the news.

Truth is that we already have our fair share of debt in Jefferson County. With the inclusion of $11 million for the Jefferson County Nursing Home ( Jefferson Park) new addition we, the people, now sit around $1500 per capita in debt in Jefferson County and that doesn’t include nearly just north of $900 per person in state debt. If we add to that number the funds to cover the schools needs assessment it will nearly double our debt per person, unless the School Board and County Commission can come up with a creative way to funds those newly discovered needs.

Times change and needs change. Jefferson County is not the same place it was three decades ago. And, it may not be the same place it was just shy of a decade ago when the decision was made to build the Patriot Academy and Mount Horeb School. But, at what point are we( the powers that actually get to vote) going to look into the future and project instead of building schools and making decisions based on what is behind them or sitting in front of them today? I would contend that there are very few of our areas in Jefferson County that are expanding and the numbers support that contention. After the big boom of a few decades ago, we have held relatively steady in numbers. The difference is the demographics of those numbers. Most areas of Jefferson County, particularly on the Dandridge side, have seen an influx of retirees. They don’t require space in schools because their children are grown. We have also seen the establishment of several private schools in the area. The only “growth” area that I see for young families may be in the Talbott area where I can foresee Jefferson City enjoying the westward growth of Hamblen County.

So here we sit with a needs assessment that rivals the “Building Plan” of the millennium that forced a drastic change in the County Commission a decade ago. For me, I am not against growth or new schools. I am not against renovation. I am against blind building based on here and now and not looking toward the future. We have a declining population in Jefferson County High School and yet we built the Patriot Academy to alleviate the numbers like we were looking at the population boom of the nineties and early 2000. In five years the projections are for nearly a thousand students less than occupied the halls of Jefferson County in its most populated era. Smart money says to move the ninth grade back to the main campus of Jefferson County High School and use the Patriot Academy for something else. Actually, smart money was screaming to not build the Patriot Academy but its cries fell on deaf ears. What I desperately don’t want is another short term fix without looking at the long term needs and I certainly don’t want it to the tune of $61 million dollars. We simply can’t afford to be that short sighted.

Maybe, it is time to come up with a plan that everyone can live with. I understand that not everyone is going to be happy and that is just a part of life. For me, I cannot support anything that comes with a multi million dollar price tag until someone takes a hard look at rezoning. It is possible that many of the needs can be answered by a zoning shift and some reorganizing of what we already have. We do have space in Jefferson County schools, just not necessarily where we need it. I know that rezoning is a hot topic but so is consolidating and closing schools. If we are already going there, shouldn’t we at least give the inexpensive solution a shot before writing the big check? It certainly appears to be the responsible thing to do; unless we just want to keep a building program on going and if that is the case then we must ask ourselves why we are in a nearly constant state of building in Jefferson County. Is it a case of little forethought or is there another underlying reason? Either way is scary for the tax payers. Rezone, then decide. It has to be done anyway and it makes much more sense to rezone before you build or renovate schools, otherwise we end up with another school that we don’t need in a place we don’t need it meanwhile in some parts of the county students are using closets for classrooms. A little common sense goes a long way and, surprise, it doesn’t require an outside contractor or cost any money.

Source: K. Depew, News Director