Sullivan commission asks for West Ridge High construction delay; school board chairman says no

Rick Wagner • Apr 19, 2019 at 7:15 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — A high school construction delay the Sullivan County Commission has requested from the school board might not come to pass, and the request might not even undergo a Board of Education vote.

Folks on both sides of the issue readily admit the commission resolution is not binding on the school board. What’s more, the BOE chairman said Friday that a vote to honor the delay might in and of itself break the law by violating a contract and cost taxpayers more money.

“I have no intention of stalling or holding up the project,” Michael Hughes said. “Contracts have been signed. People are on the job site. We’d be liable for damages if we did.”

Although the BOE is having a called work session and called meeting 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at central office near downtown Blountville, Hughes said the business related to the new high school is to address change orders, not the resolution. He said he would not stand in the way of a vote if a board member sought one, but he doesn’t see the need for one.

Still, the 24-member commission Thursday night voted 16-6 with one abstaining and one absent to approve a resolution by Commissioner Hershel Glover of Piney Flats asking the school board to halt work on West Ridge High School and present funding information about the project, although Hughes said school officials have repeatedly supplied the information requested and will continue to do so.

“This is not binding on us in any way. They don’t have the authority to put it on hold,” Hughes said. 

“They’ve been provided with it,” Hughes said of financials about West Ridge, costing more than $68 million so far, and the new Sullivan East Middle School, costing more than $22 million. “They’ve been given everything they’ve been asking for.”

Commissioner Angie Stanley of Colonial Heights amended the resolution to ask for a Tennessee Department of Transportation study on access to the new high school on Lynn Road near Exit 63 of Interstate 81 and ask that West Ridge’s opening, set for August 2021, be delayed until the results of that study are complete, even if it increases the project’s cost. She has consistently said student safety will be compromised without road improvements, although the commission and school board haven’t agreed what to do, how to do it or who should do it.

“We cannot legally sit here and stop this plan. Everything is done and in motion,” Stanley said Friday of the construction site, where Hughes said a crane recently went in place.

On Thursday night, Commissioner Dwight King of Piney Flats said, “The school’s going to go on. It’s going to be built,” while Commissioner Alicia Starnes of Sullivan Gardens said that was so but the process needs to slow down. Commissioners John Gardener of Kingsport and Mark Hutton of Bristol said delaying the project, even if legal, would add to its cost.

Stanley and other commissioners also said county residents were promised what she believes is a better 1,700-student facility than the one actually being built, which will not have a swimming pool, estimated to cost $5 million, and is to have a grass football field instead of artificial turf. She said Friday West Ridge should step up its athletics facilities since it is to be in the same league as Dobyns-Bennett and Science Hill.

About $4.8 million of the project, which is paying for outdoor athletics fields, was covered by capital improvement or renovation fund money instead of from proceeds of a $140 million countywide bond issue. Commissioner Todd Broughton of Bloomingdale, a former school board member, cited a shortfall of $12 million instead of $7 million cited by Glover by adding the estimated cost of a pool.

“They (TDOT officials) can do the study, but we are not putting off the opening of the school,” Hughes said.

“We’re on track. We’re going to open on time,” Hughes said. “We’re not putting it off for any study. We’re not putting it off for any resolution.”

Glover emphasized during the meeting the need to “avoid tax increases” and said more money is needed for renovations of Sullivan East High that will stay open and other schools to be repurposed. He wrote but did not formally file a proposed amendment that would have made the resolution a vote of no confidence against Hughes, something that Commissioner Pat Shull of Kingsport and Mark Vance of Bristol said was counterproductive to good school board-commission relations.

Hughes said that the West Ridge plan was not his first choice since he supported building a new high school in the eastern end of the county first. However, he said once the majority of the board voted for the plan for a new school to take in all Sullivan North and South high school zones and part or all of Sullivan Central, and once the commission funded it and the board let the contract and construction began, there is no turning back.

Hughes said he plans to see both school projects through to completion.