School Board To Re-Vote Due To Transparency Concerns on Two School Building Program

The question of funding for a proposed two school building program to replace Jefferson Elementary School and Piedmont Elementary School was before the Jefferson County Commission recently and the request brought conversation from Commissioners both for and against the request. Director of Jefferson County Schools, Dr. Shane Johnston, addressed the funding body looking for the nod for two new schools that have been identified by an independent firm contracted by the School Board as in need of substantial upgrades. The Lewis Group returned a school system wide needs assessment several months ago that pointed to the needs of both Piedmont Elementary School and Jefferson Elementary School. Following a review of the assessment, School Board Members voted to approach the County Commission for funding to build two new schools.

Several Commissioners spoke to the issue, noting that the estimated $30 million dollar price tag was missing some key elements such as the cost to purchase property and other auxiliary costs that could potentially lead to additional funding needs. Commissioner Thomas brought a motion to approve a $29.3 million dollar bond for the funding of two new schools as was requested by the School Board. She was 2nd by Commissioner Langley and both spoke in favor of the issue. Commissioner Byrd led a troop of Commissioners who spoke against the issue, with some noting that key information associated with costs was missing. Commissioner Kesterson inquired if the school system intended to use the building plans for Mount Horeb, the purchase of which was a part of the funding package for the building of that school, for the newly proposed school building which would eliminate design costs. Kesterson was informed that the plans are not available for use ( missing or not purchased) with the current project.

Budget Committee Chair Scarlett offered an amendment to the motion to fund that moved the County Commission would partner with the School Board for the cost of engineering and design plans for one school at the total cost not to exceed $375,000 with the County obligation not to exceed $187,500. He was 2nd by Commissioner Bales. The school system is expected to return with more firm numbers that will include land purchase and costs associated with the removal of asbestos and disposal of current buildings through sale or demolition. The amendment was approved 13-6 with Commissioners Huffaker, Patterson, Langley, Solomon, Reed and Thomas voting in dissent. The motion as amended was also approved 13-6.

The Jefferson County School Board also met last week in a Called Meeting to interview potential architectural and engineering firms for the two school building project. In action before the interviews the School Board voted to accept the offer of the Jefferson County Commission as a funding partner in the design and engineering of one school plan. Because the motion was not a part of the agenda for the called meeting and did not offer public notice for citizen input thus not meeting the standard for transparency ( according to the council for the Tennessee Comptrollers Office), the School Board will revisit the issue at their regular board meeting the first Thursday in August. School Board Chair Potts offered this statement…

The Jefferson County Board of School Commissioners met on Thursday, July 23, 2020 at the Patriot Academy to conduct business associated with the provided agenda and to interview the architect finalists for the proposed school building program.

During the school board meeting, the board voted to match funds offered by the County Commission earlier in the week to pay for the architect’s work up through schematic design.

To ensure transparency during the proposed building program, the item approved last night involving payment of architects will be placed back on the agenda for consideration at the next regularly scheduled meeting where the architect’s contract will be discussed.

Following interviews, the Board was notified that The Lewis Group, who provided the needs assessment identifying the issues with Piedmont and Jefferson Elementary Schools, had received the highest scores from the interview process that will,likely, result in the design and engineering contract for the projects.

Source: K. Depew, News Director