A request for the Sullivan County Commission to issue $6 million in school bonds to fund the creation of an access road to the new West Ridge High School raised “a lot of concerns” for the county’s attorney during its Thursday work session.
The Sullivan County Board of Education had agreed to request those bonds a week earlier, in a resolution stating that Jericho Partners LLC — a group of private business partners including former Sullivan County Highway Commissioner Jim Belgeri — would develop and build the road before selling it to the school board, along with a few acres of surrounding land.
Pat Hull, the school board’s attorney, had reviewed the proposal before the County Commission’s work session and determined that “from all indications, it’s a perfectly legal document,” Randall Jones, the BOE’s chairman, said.
Jones said that he and Hull had also asked County Attorney Dan Street for his opinion about the measure in late December. Jones said that Street’s initial, offhand reaction had been that it sounded like the BOE wanted to buy the road once it was completed and pay for it in installments — a setup Street said sounded legal, the board chairman said.
But when the commission reviewed an unsponsored draft of the resolution Thursday evening, Street reacted with multiple concerns.
The attorney said he was wary of the public-private partnership the resolution asked the BOE to be allowed to enter into with Jericho Partners. Street said he’d consulted CTAS, a University of Tennessee group that provides advice and expertise on county governance, about that arrangement before and said their experts agreed that the county couldn’t “enter into partnerships with private entities.”
Street said he was also concerned that the resolution would bypass the county’s standard bidding and purchasing laws. He also said the overall text of the resolution made it unclear what the BOE was actually requesting.
Jones, attending the meeting remotely, responded by saying that the resolution had been modeled on one the County Commission passed in 2001. The 2001 resolution authorized the commission to issue $24.2 million in bonds to fund renovations and building improvements for the county’s school system, he said.
He also said that the resolution was essentially trying to establish a contract between the BOE and commission over how they would fund the access road.
But Jones also said that the school board would abide by Street’s legal opinion.
“If the legal advice is that you can’t do it ... we’ll say we respect that and end the discussion there,” Jones said. “[The BOE thinks] this is a good solution to a problem that has existed for at least the four years since we’ve been working on the school. … But if it’s not legal … we’ll put a stop to that.”
Jones said that he thinks the highway department’s plan to improve Lynn Road, which currently provides access to West Ridge High, “is going to help some.” (At the same work session, the commission actually reviewed a separate resolution to authorize those improvements.) But Jones said that the improvements wouldn’t address every last safety concern about Lynn Road.
The commission’s education committee agreed to discuss the resolution in more detail with Jones and Director of Schools David Cox next Wednesday afternoon, the day before the commission holds its regular monthly meeting.
Mayor Richard Venable assured Jones that he believed the two groups could “find a solution.”
“As my late grandfather used to say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Venable said.
“We’re looking for the other ways, so we’re open to those,” Jones said.
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