If the owners listed on deeds are any indication, the school system has claim to more properties than the county, although heirs of those who donated some of the school parcels could have a legal claim to some of the properties.
At issue are three former school buildings: the old Holston Institute property near Tri-Cities Airport, last used as a school in 1980; the former Bluff City Middle and former Holston Valley Middle, both of which were used as schools until the new Sullivan East Middle opened in January.
The fate of three other facilities remains to be decided and could be affected by any precedent set in selling Holston Institute, Bluff City Middle and Holston Valley Middle. These other schools are Colonial Heights Middle, Blountville Middle and the middle school portion of Sullivan Gardens K-8, also known as the former Sullivan West High.
Blountville and Sullivan are attached to elementary schools, but Colonial Heights is a stand-alone building in a residential area.
WHAT’S THE RUB?
Up until 2015, the Board of Education would declare a closed school surplus and then turn it over to the County Commission for disposal, which normally was through a live auction. However, school board attorney Pat Hull has told the school board and County Commissioners Dwight King and Herschel Glover that he believes county officials in effect told the school system it could dispose of surplus schools.
County Mayor Richard Venable said Friday he never did that and doesn’t believe any county mayor, including former Mayor Steve Godsey, would have that authority. King said Godsey didn’t do that, and Dan Street, county attorney under both mayors, said he doesn’t remember county officials doing that.
“I just don’t remember that ever happening,” Street said. “I don’t say that to start a fight with Pat Hull.”
However, a Sept. 8, 2015, Kingsport Times News article reported that the school board decided informally that day to sell a surplus school on its own after then-Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski told the board Venable said the commission would not have an issue with that sale.
“The school board agreed by consensus during a Tuesday afternoon work session to put the disposal of the former Brookside Elementary on the Monday, Sept. 14 (2015) agenda after Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski told the board that County Mayor Richard Venable had informed her the commission would have no problem with the school board disposing of Brookside,” the article reported.
The board voted Sept. 14, according to the board minutes and a Sept. 15 Times News article, on a motion by member Todd Broughton, now a county commissioner, to sell the Brookside property. The vote was 5-0 with Dan Wells abstaining and one seat vacant.
In 2018, the school board sold the former Weaver Elementary by itself instead of turning it over to the county. The school closed after an engineer’s findings that it was structurally unsound.
WHO LEGALLY CAN SELL THE SCHOOLS?
Street said he looked into the issue in 2015-16 and determined the school system through the school board had every right to sell property deeded to the school system.
“The statutes clearly say they (school systems) can sell property,” Street said. “The way I remember it, the school board did it on its own.”
Using that logic, Street said that one of four deeds he’s seen to the Bluff City property, the 1958 deed from Thomas Broyles and his wife, put the property in the ownership of Sullivan County.
The Holston Institute deeds are much older, some going back to the late 1800s. The heirs of other former owners who donated the land could come into play if those heirs challenged a sale. Hull has told the school board the property would be sold with a quitclaim deed, which would give the new owners no more or no less than the school system’s ownership of the property, not a warranty deed.
He was referring to when the school board voted to sell the former Brookside Elementary School building in 2015, although the county sold the former Kingsley Elementary building in 2015 at a public auction. Both sales were finalized in 2016.
In December 2015, the school board voted to sell Brookside to Atay LLC, owned by Jody Stewart of Hawkins County, by early 2016 for $236,000 after a sealed-bid auction went into overtime. Stewart indicated the building might be used for senior apartments, but it became a self-storage facility. Atay also purchased the old Kingsley for $100,000 plus a $10,000 buyers premium in November 2015. Stewart said it might be senior housing, but it became an antique mall/indoor flea market.
Street said former schools haven’t sold that well or for that much. The Weaver school sold initially by the county for a little more than $40,000, then resold for $100,000 and became a bed and breakfast, but that is no longer in operation.