Behind the Blackboard: School mergers can be painful, but they can also yield dividends

Rick Wagner • Jan 2, 2017 at 4:00 PM

I was having lunch recently at a restaurant in Kingsport when I noticed a group of high school students, about 80, dining in another section. I was trying to map out a future Behind the Blackboard column and blog, but I started thinking about when I was their age.

It turns out the group was from Wise County, Va., which a few years back consolidated and merged smaller high schools into new or renovated buildings. I thought back to my own time in high school. I went to a grades K-6 elementary school (Surgoinsville Elementary) and a grades 7-12 high school (Surgoinsville High). But at the end of my sophomore year, the high school became a middle school and we juniors (and seniors) from Surgoinsville and Church Hill high schools moved on to Volunteer Comprehensive High School, better known as Volunteer High.

Volunteer and Cherokee (Rogersville and Bulls Gap high schools merged) were formed the same year as North and South, forever changing the high school landscape in the region. I also remember the 1981 game in which Volunteer at home beat Kingsport’s Dobyns-Bennett 14-0 in football. That’s still a topic at Volunteer Class of 1982 reunions. Volunteer, which no longer plays D-B in football, repeated the feat in 1982 with a score of 13-9 and in 1985 with a 23-10 score.

Back at lunch, I began to think about what just happened in Sullivan County. The Sullivan County Commission on Dec. 12 approved a $140 million bond issue that will fund, among other things, a 1,700-student high school just off Exit 63 of Interstate 81 and a new middle school near East High School on Weaver Pike. The county school board chose the two sites and two backup sites at a called meeting Dec. 10. The landscape was changing again, seemingly quickly.

But it was not so fast, really, unless movement after a decade is your definition of quick, which in government could be.

Was Ralph Harr smiling in the great beyond?

I cover K-12 and some higher education for the Kingsport Times-News, and in a past job I covered Sullivan County government and education for another newspaper in the Tri-Cities. With that background, I can’t help but think of the late County Commissioner Ralph Harr of Bristol.

If Harr somehow knew what happened Dec. 12, I’m sure he was smiling. He was a fiscal conservative but also long a proponent of a new middle school in the East High zone, going so far as to introduce a resolution to fund such a school with a $50 million bond issue. That was in late 2006, as Sullivan County Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski recently pointed out; in early 2007, his proposal prompted the first of two facilities studies done for the school system.

That initial study, however, had no recommendations, only findings. A second study began more than two years ago, after then-Director Jubal Yennie’s proposal to merge North and South high schools at South drew community opposition, and that study included recommendations. A parallel study for Kingsport, by the same consultant, was intertwined, and Bristol, Tenn. schools later joined in a countywide effort by updating a 2006 study there.

The rest, as the old saying goes, is history. Sullivan County is set to get a new high school to replace North, South and most of Central, with some Central students being rezoned to East. Three middle school programs in the East zone will be consolidated at the new middle school site, which as a bonus has room for an elementary school in the future. South and Central will become middle schools, while North will be sold to Kingsport for $20 million and renovated into a city middle school. Bristol, Tenn., will build a new Vance Middle School. Kingsport also is building a regional science and technology center.

Parents and community members from North and South have been outspoken in their opposition to the plan, saying among other things that county students will be in danger driving on Interstate 81, businesses depending on school activities will wither, they said, and the sense of community will be gone.

South’s middle school operation will replace the middle school portion of Sullivan K-8, the old Sullivan West High, and Colonial Heights Middle. Both are in poor shape and will cease to be schools under the plan.

The view from the top of new school construction is different for Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski. She was a beginning teacher when the last building projects were done in Sullivan County, and now she’s seeing a new building phase from central office.

Nostalgia versus progress

My old high school, Surgoinsville, is still in use as a middle school, and my old elementary is still an elementary school. Volunteer is still there, too, although a Freshman Academy expansion was added a few years back. Like most people, I have an emotional attachment to those schools, but what I remember the most were the people, friends, teachers and staff. Because of our smaller size, we didn’t have some classes that Volunteer offers, although there were growing pains the first year or two at the new school.

You can argue all day about the merits of the new plan that is being implemented in Sullivan County or the old ones more than 36 years ago in Hawkins and Sullivan counties. But one thing I learned over the years is you get out of an education what you put into it. From being among 25 or so in a lone kindergarten class to a community of more than 25,000 at the University of Tennessee, students should do their best whatever situation they have.

The whole idea of the new schools, especially the high school, is that they will offer more career technical education and hands-on learning while also increasing Advanced Placement, dual enrollment and honors courses. I wish I’d had access to today’s offerings at Surgoinsville and Volunteer since I took my first honors class at UT and never had any formal CTE education. Students, as well as the faculty and staff, are moving on to a new environment, new challenges and new opportunities for decades to come.

Here’s wishing you well in the new year, no matter your opinion on the new schools plan.

Today’s Lesson: Change can be good but is not always easy or quick.

Bonus question: When did Volunteer beat D-B in football?

Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times-News and can be reached at rwagner@timesnews.net or (423) 392-1381.