Loudon County school board chief hopes to break longtime deadlock

His goal: Ending 3-yeardelay of much-needed upgrades and repairs

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Loudon County Board of Education Chairman Bobby Johnson Jr. may have accomplished in several weeks what the board has been trying to do for several years.

Johnson, who took over as chairman Sept. 13, may have come up with a way to break a deadlock between the school board and the County Commission that has delayed much-needed upgrades and repairs to schools.

“It’s been three years,” Johnson said. “I think we need to get together on this and make something happen for the parents and children in this county.”

Key to the plan is a sales tax increase that could go on the February ballot.

He also abolished all committees and workshops his first night as chairman in an effort to stop bickering, urging board members who did not want to cooperate to “hit the road.”

Johnson also has made the decision to seek guidance from the Loudon County Commission and County Mayor Doyle Arp in advance of submitting the plan to the commission.

Although he has ruffled a few feathers on the board, his strategy seems to be working.

At last week’s school board meeting, school Superintendent Edward Headlee unveiled a draft of a new capital improvement plan. It incorporates elements from several previously discussed plans.

“I think we could have a plan approved by the commission before the end of the year,” Headlee said.

The latest plan, estimated at $80 million to $90 million, addresses a number of controversial issues including a new pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade school for the Greenback community, relocation of the school department offices and a new county high school.

“We will sort out these issues during a (school board) workshop on Nov. 1,” Headlee said.

What’s even more encouraging to school officials is the apparent willingness of the County Commission to consider a half- to three-quarter-cent sales tax rate increase to help fund the improvements.

County Commissioner David Meers, principal at Highland Park Elementary School, said at the school board meeting last week that the commission likely would put the sales tax increase on the ballot for February.

The addition of the new sales tax, which is estimated to bring in another $1.1 million per year, would mean that the commission would not have to raise property taxes, Meers said.

Johnson said the latest plans and funding proposals are the result of meetings between himself, Headlee and Arp.

“Headlee and I had a meeting with the mayor, and we discussed how to get this plan approved and funded.”

Johnson acknowledged that some board members are not happy with his methods, but he said his goal is to keep the process from getting bogged down in committees and political infighting.

“Headlee is paid to run the show; let him do his job,” Johnson said.

The board will have to make adjustments, Headlee agreed.

“It’s a new way of doing things without as many committees involved, but hopefully it will cut through the bureaucracy.”

Board members Freddie Walker and former Chairman Bill Marcus were absent from the last board meeting and couldn’t be reached for comment.

School board member Nancy Paule said she is confident the board can now agree on a plan that will be approved by the County Commission. The biggest challenge is prioritizing widespread renovations in almost every part of the school system, she said.

The county has nine schools and about 5,000 students.

“It was such a big decision, I think initially the board was overwhelmed,” Paule said. “I’m very happy with what Bobby’s done. I think he will bring a consensus to the board.”

Paule said she is also happy with the initiative shown by the commission in considering the sales tax increase but fears that a property tax increase is still inevitable.

“I’ve heard from my constituents in the Tellico Village area,” she said. “They want to do something for the schools. Many don’t understand why we haven’t had a property tax increase already.”

The commission and school board also are looking at a $15 million rural bond issue that along with the sales tax increase and other sources of revenue such as increased state funds could provide about $25 million toward the first phase of the plan, Headlee said.


*New middle school for 900, with core capacity allowing expansion to 1,200 on U.S. Highway 321 
*Purchase of property near Interstate 75 Exit 72 for pre-K-8 school for 800, with core capacity of 1,000
*New pre-K-12 school for 900 on Morganton Road in Greenback
*Relocate school headquarters to technology center on Harrison Road
*New high school in northern section of county