County tells BOE 'no,' votes against devoting $5 million to school construction project

Jeremy Styron-News-Herald

After months of workshops and discussions between school board and county officials, Loudon County Commission on Monday voted down a plan to appropriate $5 million to combine buildings at Loudon Elementary and Fort Loudoun Middle schools.

Commissioner Don Miller, who made a motion to table the issue, said he thought phase one should be completed successfully before moving to another project.

He was also in favor of a plan previously floated by Commission Chairman Roy Bledsoe to take out a short-term loan and save an estimated $1 million to $2 million on interest.

“I think before deciding whether this is the right thing to do we need to see what effect if we did something like this it would do to the fund balance over the immediate future in the school debt fund and what effect this might mean on the timing of the phase one and phase two projects,” Miller said about the short-term loan.

A vote to table the discussion failed, with commissioners Bob Franke, Rosemary Quillen and David Meers not present.

The commission then continued to discuss the school combination, which would include a conjoined breezeway and administrative offices and additional classroom space at Loudon Elementary School to eliminate portables.

“We've asked them time and time again to bring us data and information, and they've done that,” Commissioner Sharon Yarbrough said about the Loudon County Board of Education's efforts. “They've acted in good faith. ... I think we need to move forward with what our plans are as we discussed in the workshop.”

Commissioner Steve Harrelson asked Director of Schools Jason Vance about the possibility of “drastically” reducing the $5 million price tag on the school combination.

“We've absolutely been discussing that throughout this process,” Vance said. “We want to be as fiscally responsible as we can with our taxpayers' money, with our capital projects money in general. I don't want to throw numbers around right now. We really won't know what that looks like until we actually set it out for bid. However, we want to be as tight as we can with this project, so we have money to spend on future projects.”

Miller said he got a phone call from an unnamed school board member who “felt very strongly” that the county should not spend as much as $5 million on the school combination.

Commissioner Brian Jenkins addressed a suggestion that an expansion at Loudon High School should take precedence over the elementary and middle school project.

“Mr. Vance is the voice of the school board,” Jenkins said. “They have voted on this. This is their recommendation. This has always been part of phase one, although they called it phase one-A. If you remember early on it was taken out in order to make sure that we can afford it. It appears at this point that we can.

“They have presented us with a plan,” he said. “The high school was never part of that plan. I totally agree it needs to be addressed and soon, but it's my recommendation that we finish what we started and get it over with, and then we look at the future.”

Vance said the school combination completes phase one and that the county should move swiftly to give the students a better learning environment.

“We believe as a board we need to move forward on this, and we need to be timely in the way that we're moving forward because if we don't every time we put this off it's that much longer that kids have to be in portables, and it's that much longer that kids are delayed,” Vance said.

The vote to approve the funding failed 4-3, with Bledsoe, Harrelson, Miller and Maples voting against and Commissioners Harold Duff, Yarbrough and Jenkins in favor.

During the public comments portion at the end of the meeting, Vance again addressed the commission and asked for funds to continue design work on the school combination.

“It seems to me like I'm hearing some people speak about very intently (that) they'd like to immediately start with Loudon High School, maybe some even in front of the other (project),” Vance said. “I don't think that's the commission's responsibility. That is absolutely the board's responsibility, but we could have design monies for both of those simultaneously if it would please the commission.

“We believe the board for the first time has been united in presenting a plan to the county commission,” he added. “And so I'm just curious if we're not going to do this as (it's) been asked — as far as the board present a plan and the commission approves plans — then what might the commission deem an appropriate time frame to move forward from here?”

Vance then asked what the school board and county commission needed to do to be able to “play appropriately together.”

Bledsoe said the commission doesn't typically go back and answer questions after the votes have taken place.

In other business, the board:

Tabled a vote to make a $50,000 settlement with Covenant Health regarding a jail inmate who received treatment at the hospital. Covenant initially sued the county for more than $200,000 in unpaid medical bills.

County Mayor Estelle Herron said that in recent talks with Jeffrey Feike, president and chief administrative officer at Fort Loudoun Medical Center, the hospital would agree to settle if the county would pay the $50,000.

Herron said she then sought counsel from Loudon County Attorney Bob Bowman, who advised the county accept the deal.

The county tabled the issue with plans to meet with Bowman in closed session at the next workshop to discuss the lawsuit.

Voted 6-1 to establish a Courthouse and Jail Maintenance Fund 112 that would consist of revenue generated from the litigation tax on civil and criminal cases. Money in the fund would be earmarked for jail or workhouse construction, renovations or to retire debt associated with those projects. Yarbrough voted against the resolution.

Denied a request to rezone 7505 Highway 11 East from R-1 suburban residential to C-2 general commercial.