VITAL POLICY – Getting Jefferson County’s Financial House In Order – A Path To Providing Better Education Services

My 5th Grade teacher, Nancy Jones, always gave her students sound advice, especially in the areas of life, respect, and humility. If you are going to criticize someone, she would say, at least be willing to suggest a better plan or be willing to listen to the ideas of others. We have a set of interrelated financial problems in Jefferson County relative to school buildings, taxation, debt, building maintenance, long term capital needs, and logistics. The solution is manageable; but the path seems to be blocked with make-believe obstacles.

Burden of Debt

Debt is preventing our county from providing efficient services to the taxpayers, especially education services. Jefferson County taxpayers shell out over 7 million dollars per year for debt payments, 3 million dollars per year in interest alone. Imagine what we could do if we could rid ourselves of that burden.

Important Factors

Here is a set of facts to consider. Jefferson County Schools spent over $100,000 of your money to pay an architecture firm to analyze the student capacity and quality of all our school buildings. That study revealed a capacity of 10,000 students systemwide. It was a conservative analysis; and if that study is found to be inaccurate, the taxpayers deserve a refund. The Tennessee Department of Education (DOE) officially tracks student enrollment for BEP funding and other reasons. On August 1, 2020 Jefferson County School enrollment was 6784 students. Between that date and February 19, 2021, at least 1164 students withdrew from Jefferson County Schools. Another 889 are enrolled in distance learning. 812 are attending private or homeschool, all this according to a statement released by the Jefferson County school system in response to my public information request. That means that 4808 students are attending in-person classes in Jefferson County, leaving capacity for another 5192 students in our school buildings.

Public Records

Data in this article is based on the following: Jefferson County Schools Facility Needs Assessment study, Tennessee Department of Education Report Card, public records submitted by Jefferson County Schools on February 19, March 16, and April 23, 2021, and the [schools] Capital Assets and Facilities Planning report of 2018.

Covid-19 Relief Money

According to the public information release dated April 23, 2021, Jefferson County School district is receiving $21,894,291.38. Yes, that is nearly 22 million dollars from federal sources appropriated for school building renovation and repairs. Keep this number in mind for a point made later in this article.

School Board Intentions

Even though we have room for another 5192 students in our school system, the school board has expressed the desire to build a new 600 student elementary school on the site of the Jefferson County Fairgrounds at a cost of $20,000,000, leaving the existing 600 student Jefferson Elementary School to either rot or be demolished, or both, resulting in no net increase of classroom space, loss of the county fairgrounds, and another 20 million dollars of crushing debt. The board has also signaled that it plans to spend 15 of the 22 million dollars of ESSER Covid-19 relief funding to renovate Piedmont School which has already gone through renovation and was considered for closure just a few months ago. Other schools in Jefferson County have desperate capital and maintenance needs.

Patriot Academy

The ninth-grade Patriot Academy is the central processing plant for high school transition. It was established with good intentions, mainly to give students a high-quality freshman experience and to provide the foundation to build a successful high school career. However, having a ninth-grade school one mile removed from the upperclassmen has robbed ninth graders of valuable mentoring by older students and has isolated them from exposure to the variety of programs available to all students at the main campus. My editorial of July 8, 2020, linked here, expands on the problems and deprivation experienced by our freshmen students. Moving the ninth grade back to the JCHS main campus solves many of these problems and provides a shiny new school for 1000 students. The $100,000 needs assessment study indicates that the JCHS main campus has room for all 9-12 grade students.

The Solution

The plan below will save the Jefferson County Fairgrounds from destruction, prevent Jefferson County from digging another $20 million deeper in debt, retire the second Wheel Tax on the scheduled sunset date, accelerate the repayment of remaining debt, alleviate the suffering at Jefferson Elementary School, release revenue from debt service that can be appropriated for future school capital needs, and immediately provide $22 million for systemwide capital needs and renovation.

  1. Move the ninth grade to the main JCHS campus.

  1. Demolish the existing Jefferson Elementary School. (liquidate the property and use the cash)

  1. Adopt a K-8 model for remaining school buildings.

  1. As an alternative, adopt a combination of K-8 schools and magnet middle schools.

  1. Reallocate the $22 million Covid-19 windfall to cover desperately needed capital expenses across the school system. Use this money for the purposes that congress intended it for.

  1. Sunset the second Wheel Tax on April 1, 2024.

  1. Accelerate the repayment of county debt on certain bonds beginning in 2024 when the debt service repayments are dramatically decreased.

  1. Delay school building programs and determine if enrollment continues to decline as the school system predicts in its 5-year projection (school facilities report dated February 2018). If ESA’s (vouchers) and education tax credits are broadened, private and religious schools will further subtract enrollment from public schools.

  1. A freshman pod at the main JCHS campus can be built for under 5 million dollars. If the school board is compelled to build something, Jefferson County has more than enough cash to accomplish this without adding to the county debt.

K-8 Schools

Rush Strong and White Pine Schools, both K-8, are a testament to the success of K-8 schools.

County Commission

The Jefferson County Commission should recommend that the school board efficiently use school buildings and refrain from adding to the county debt. Doing so will enable us to provide far more resources for education in the future. If we remain consumed by debt or add to the debt, our ability to provide education services and address the capital needs of schools will be greatly diminished.

Basic Patriot Math

Starting with 6784 students August 1, 2020 (2020-2021 School Year)

In a scenario in which Jefferson County Schools did not have 1164+ student withdrawals, 812 students being homeschooled or private schooled, 889 attending on-line, and more parents seeking alternatives to public schools, the following represents a worse case concerning student enrollment.

6784 total students in school system – 2150 high school students on the main campus = 4634 K-8 Students

The 10 remaining schools including Patriot Academy and excluding Jefferson Elementary, have a capacity of 7200 students, more than enough room for all 4634 K-8 students.

The Jefferson County Schools Needs Assessment Study indicates the following school building capacities, omitting Jefferson Elementary School:

Dandridge Elementary 800

Mt. Horeb Elementary 700

New Market Elementary 450

Piedmont Elementary 500

Rush Strong School 900

White Pine School 1000

Jefferson Middle 900

Maury Middle 650

Talbott Elementary 300

Patriot Academy 1000

Jefferson Elementary 0

Total K-8 Capacity 7200 (source, Needs Assessment Study)

Considering the number of students that withdrew since the August 1, 2020 enrollment was reported, and the number attending private school or homeschool, Jefferson County Schools have a surplus capacity of 5192 students.

Source: Vital Policy - David Seal is a retired Jefferson County educator, as well as a recognized artist and local businessman. He has also served Jefferson County as a County Commissioner and is a lobbyist for the people on issues such as eminent domain, property rights, education, and broadband accessibility on the state level.