20 Jul Jefferson County Commission OKs New School (TN)

July 20, 2010

By: Mike Blackerby
Source: Knoxville News Sentin el

Ten-year-old Mackenzie Cureton implored the Jefferson County Commission to do the right thing as she addressed the standing-room-only crowd of about 200 people Monday.

"A new school would mean so much to us. You commissioners have been working on this project my entire life," said the rising sixth-grader at Jefferson Middle School.

Her comment drew laughs from the Jefferson County Courthouse crowd.

She also got her new school – finally.

After years of protracted haggling between opposing sides, county commissioners voted 11-9, with one abstention, to approve $64.4 million in bonds to fund a controversial school building plan.

School funding has been a hot-button issue in Jefferson County for years; many on opposing sides expressed frustration over the impasse.

Backers of the funding plan cited unbearable overcrowding and deplorable conditions in several county schools.

Opponents of the plan said school bond debt will push the county’s indebtedness to about $118 million and jeopardize the area’s long-term financial health by sending property and wheel taxes skyrocketing.

Jefferson County school board Chairman Ann Marie Potts said Monday’s vote paves the way for construction to begin on a new high school and will fix overcrowding and major infrastructure problems at the aging and decrepit 35-year-old Jefferson County High School.

"We’re excited about moving forward as quickly as possible," Potts said. "We will start the new high school first, do renovations at Jefferson County High School and build two new elementary schools."

About a dozen citizens addressed the school-funding issue, with most supporting the plan.

Gigi Sharp, a teacher at White Pine School, said the inaction had gone on way too long at the expense of the children.

"Here we are seven years later, and not one spade of dirt has been turned," Sharp said. "That is unconscionable."

Amy McFarlane of Dandridge said she will be more than willing to pay higher taxes to give her three sons a better education.

"These children are the future of this county," McFarlane said. "We’re gonna have to raise property taxes, and I’m not against raising the wheel tax – and I have four vehicles at my home. When you have about a half of the high school students in portables, it’s a disgrace."

Jefferson County High student Matthew Robert Rogers said the county jail "is in better shape than our high school."

But others questioned the wisdom of heaping more of a financial burden on county citizens in these tough economic times.

"I’m against it because of the debt. That’s all," said David Rotherforth of Dandridge. "I’m not against schools and I’m not down on schools, but I’m down on people that don’t know how to handle money."

Jefferson County Mayor Alan Palmieri cautioned commission members that if they approved the school funding, they had to come up with a way to pay for it on top of the existing county debt.

"It’s irresponsible to assume that property taxes (alone) will pay for $100 million," Palmieri said.

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