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Sullivan commissioners, mayor, question sale of old schools

Rick Wagner • Feb 9, 2020 at 1:15 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County school system and county officials are at odds over the disposal of at least two former schools and their campuses.

The Board of Education Thursday night voted to declare four properties as surplus: the old Holston Institute/Holston High School property near Tri-Cities Airport last used as a school in 1980, the ball field adjoining that property, Bluff City Middle School and Holston Valley Middle School, the latter two no longer used as schools due to the January opening of the new Sullivan East Middle School.

Upon a motion by Vice Chairman Randall Jones of Indian Springs, the votes to declare the Holston properties surplus included the phrase “and commence process for sale,” but the Bluff City and Holston Valley votes did not.

NOT SO FAST, COUNTY MAYOR SAYS

“I object to selling that property,” Venable said of the Holston Institute land.

At last one deed to the property has a reversion clause to the heirs of the people who donated it if the land ceases to be used for educational purposes. The last school operation there was Holston Middle until Holston Elementary/Middle School opened in 1980, although the school system, Sheriff’s Office and other county operations use the property for storage.

In addition, Venable said that the owner of record of the Bluff City property should sell it.

BOE Chairman Michael Hughes said that would be fine with him, meaning a potential buyer that wanted all the campus would have to deal with two different sellers. Also, a Masonic lodge retained such a reversion clause on another part of the land if the property ceased being used for educational purposes, but BOE attorney Pat Hull said that is no longer in effect because the lodge disbanded and its members merged into a lodge in Bluff City.

Venable said he has asked County Attorney Dan Street to look into the matter, and the mayor said he will do everything he can to keep any of the school properties from being sold until ownership is established, even if that requires going to court.

“I instructed our lawyer (Hull) to do the same thing (look into the matter) today,” Hughes said.

Hughes also said he believes the BOE would proceed with sealed bid auctions for all four properties but that the board is not bound to take the highest bid or any of the bids.

WHAT WERE PUBLIC COMMENTERS’ CONCERNS?

Three public speakers expressed hope that the new owners would do something beneficial to Bluff City with the old middle school property there. Hughes said he agreed and that the board would put deed restrictions on the property possibly going beyond what it did on the old Weaver Elementary School property that went mostly to one commercial interest, another section to a cemetery and small sections to two private homeowners.

The votes on everything but the Bluff City property were 7-0. The board voted 3-4 on a motion by Mark Ireson of Colonial Heights to table the Bluff City declaration until the March 5 meeting, citing concerns by County Commissioner Herschel Glover and two others about moving too quickly to surplus a school used until December, as well as Glover’s concerns about one of at least four deeds for the property saying Sullivan County was the owner rather than explicitly saying the school system.

The board then voted 4-3 to approve the surplus designation of Bluff City. Voting for were Hughes, Jones, Randall Glover of Blountville and Matthew Spivey of Kingsport. Voting no were Ireson, Paul Robinson of Bloomingdale and Jane Thomas of the Bluff City area. 

Glover said he believes the county commission, not the school board, should dispose of surplus school properties, especially the Bluff City parcel with the deed listing the owner as Sullivan County.

Hull explaining during and after the meeting that at some point county officials told the school system it should dispose of surplus school property, not the county.

“I don’t have the authority to do what Pat Hull thinks I did,” Venable said Friday.

Hull after the meeting said he didn’t remember exactly when the change occurred but thought it might have been about seven or eight years ago.