Hughes doesn't believe Sullivan school board would heed call to delay West Ridge

Rick Wagner • Mar 26, 2019 at 7:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The head of the seven-member Sullivan County school board says he doesn’t believe that body would agree to delay construction of the new West Ridge High School, even if the County Commission next month passed a resolution requesting the delay.

“There’s no inclination on my part to pause the project,” BOE Chairman Michael Hughes said Monday.

And the head of the five-member Kingsport school board said she’s concerned that the longer the new county high school is delayed, the more expense the city school system will face in renovating the current Sullivan North High School. The city bought North for $20 million and plans to turn it into the new Sevier Middle School.

Both were responding to a resolution introduced on first reading at Thursday’s County Commission meeting. No vote was taken, but the resolution seeks a temporary halt to the construction of West Ridge until the school system proves it has enough money to finish Sullivan East Middle and West Ridge. Those two schools and an addition to Dobyns-Bennett High School and a new Vance Middle School in Bristol have been funded by a $140 million countywide bond issue.

Sullivan County Commissioner Hershel Glover also connected the need to slow the school work to the “emergency situation with the Sullivan County jail overcrowding.” That was a reference that any cost overruns from the school construction projects would cause an additional property tax burden on top of whatever the cost of renovation, expansion or new construction of a jail would cost.

“Nobody on the school board had seen or knew that,” Hughes said of the resolution by Glover, Dwight King and Joyce Crosswhite. Hughes said the school system will provide requested information on finances for the construction projects and make Finance Director Ingrid DeLoach, Maintenance Supervisor Charlie Hubbard and Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski available to answer questions for the 24-member commission.

“The only place I’ve seen it was the papers,” Hughes said of the resolution. “I can’t speak for the rest of the board, but I have no intention of delaying the project. We have signed contracts and we have people laying block.” 

Originally, West Ridge was supposed to open in the fall of 2020 and East Middle in the fall of 2019, but because of excessive rain the high school opening date has been pushed back to the fall of 2021 and the middle school to January 2020. 

“It’s definitely an inconvenience to say the least,” Kingsport BOE President Carrie Upshaw said Monday of the West Ridge delays. “I’m very concerned a year delay might turn into 18 months or two years.” 

The city used $20 million in its bond proceeds to buy North, and that money has already been put toward the two county school projects. East Middle is running about $23 million and West Ridge about $68 million, although some of the West Ridge money is coming from some savings the school system had in its capital projects/renovation fund. Also, some East Middle money for sewer service for that school and the existing East High is to come from money the school board set aside for that purpose.

“As it (North) continues to sit there, we are very concerned about our renovation costs as each year part of the building is not used,” Upshaw said.

Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street told commissioners the resolution, if passed, would not be binding on the school board.