What can't happen in Sullivan school-closing scenario?

Rick Wagner • Oct 2, 2019 at 8:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Why not halt construction of West Ridge High School, or turn it into a new Sullivan County jail, or cut the school system’s central office staff to save money?

If you read Facebook comments, those ideas seem to be popular discussion points in talking about the potential Sullivan County school system loss of $4 million a month in state funding if maintenance of effort requirements are not met. Here’s what school officials have to say about those points.

— Construction of Sullivan East Middle School, set to open in January of 2020, and West Ridge High School, set to open in August of 2021, would not be affected by that funding loss or a school system shutdown. Those are capital projects funded by a separate funding stream and construction contracts are binding legal documents.

 “There is not any relationship between the projects” and the budget disagreement, Director of Schools David Cox said Tuesday. “Maintenance of effort and state funding are the operating budget. Building is the capital budget.”

— Converting West Ridge to a jail wouldn’t work because it would be impractical, Cox, said, not to mention that the bonds were issued for constructing schools, not anything else. The reason for the two new schools is to replace aging facilities and “right size” the school system’s student capacity

“You can’t do that,” Cox said. “Retooling a school for a jail would be cost prohibitive.”

The county is seeking solutions to an overcrowded jail that include an addition and renovations or a new building exceeding the more than $60 million price tag of West Ridge.

— Sullivan County schools central office is not overstaffed, Cox and others said. Former Director Evelyn Rafalowski said that between 1999, when she came to the central office, to her retirement earlier this year, the staff was roughly cut in half. 

“We have supervisors who wear multiple hats,” Cox said. “We are spread too thinly to provide the support schools need.” 

Business Manager Ingrid DeLoach said a vacant receptionist position and accounting position have gone unfilled, with other employees sharing those duties. She said food service, funded from a self-supporting budget, also lost two employees in the central office and their positions were not refilled. 

As far as contracts begin broken by a shutdown that might result from the funding loss, including those with teachers, administrators, and school bus operators, Cox simply said the system would be in “uncharted territory.”

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