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Mega school possible election issue

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By Damon Lawrence

All 15 seats on the Roane County Commission will be on the ballot for the Aug. 2, 2018, election.

Because the Commission is the funding body for the school system, the election could serve as a de facto referendum on the high school building program that’s been proposed by the Board of Education.    

“I think that’s a possibility,” Roane County Executive Ron Woody said.

Earlier this year, the school board voted to build a new consolidated high school combining Harriman, Rockwood and Kingston’s Roane County high schools.

The proposed 1,800-student high school would be built near Roane State Community College.

The school board’s plan also calls for making improvements at Midway High School, closing Oliver Springs High School and turning Oliver Springs Middle into a 6-12 school. School officials have yet to announce how much the entire project is expected to cost. Construction costs, which is not the total cost, has been estimated at $40.8 million to $45.2 million.

School Board Member Mike “Brillo” Miller said he’s not sure if the board will request funding before next year’s election.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I would think we would.”

The school board is working with Lewis Group Architects on the project. Lewis is developing the plans for the new high school based on input from the school board and the community.

“It will depend on when we get the final product back,” Miller said, about when the board might make its funding request. “They’ll (Lewis) send it to us, let us look at it, have a big work session to go over what it consists of. Then we’ll look to see if we want to tweak it or change something, so I guess it will depend on when we get the final plan.”

An update on the status of the building program could come this week. The school board’s High School Building Program Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet on Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the auditorium at Roane County High School.

Commissioner Darryl Meadows said he’d like to see the next commission vote on the funding for the building program.

“In my mind, the sooner the better, but they’re (the next commission) the ones, if it were to pass, who would have to live through the construction and the opening of the school,” he said.

Woody said its unlikely the county will borrow all the money for the project at once, so a problem could arise for the school system if the current commission decides to take on some debt for the program and the next commission doesn’t support it.

“You can have a commission that authorizes $50 million,” Woody said. “The same commission could borrow $10 million of the $50 million authorized, and then the next commission could say we’re not going to borrow any more.”        

Woody also said a vote showing support for the school board’s program is different from a vote to borrow the money to pay for it.

“There’s really not a point of no return until the money is borrowed,” he said. “Then you’ve issued debt, so it’s not the authorization approval of it. It’s the actual issuance of it.”

Candidates can start picking up petitions for the election in January. Woody said it’s probable that support or opposition to the building program could be used as platforms in the commission races.

“What we don’t know at this juncture is how many of our existing commissioners may choose not to run, and then you’ve got those people that could be jockeying based on their support of the education plan or not,” Woody said. “Then you could have existing commissioners that could have opposition for the same reason.

“I think you would see it primarily first in the open positions as a platform.”