Sullivan school board may sue County Commission

Rick Wagner • Jan 4, 2019 at 8:26 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s school board is to vote Tuesday whether to authorize attorneys to sue the Sullivan County Commission for not approving use of restricted fund balance money to pay for a $1 million sewer line. It would serve the new Sullivan East Middle School to open next year.

“We didn’t go looking for litigation,” Board of Education Chairman Michael Hughes said, announcing the Tuesday vote plans at Thursday evening’s two-hour work session. “It will be out of necessity if it happens.”

The suit, to be handled by longtime school board attorney Pat Hull and Nashville-based education attorney Chuck Cagle, would be in response to a County Commission vote last month of 15-9 against allowing a fund balance, restricted to spending related to the middle school project, to be used for a sewer line feeding into the Bristol wastewater treatment plant.

Hughes said delaying the sewer trunk line could delay or even stop the middle school project, increasing its cost, although member Mark Ireson said suing the commission should occur only after a last-ditch effort to resolve the issue.

“If we start down this path, that opportunity is gone,” Ireson said.

“Let’s try to get along with them,” Ireson said. “Do not create a war with your funding body.” He said suing “didn’t work for the sheriff (former Sheriff Wayne Anderson)” and that “we may win but we’ll lose in the long run.”

Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said some commissioners talked about the 1993 City-County Sewer Agreement and how they thought it meant the city should install the 4-inch line already approved by Tennessee and the city’s engineers. Others questioned whether the line was large enough for potential future development. The line is sized for the new middle school, tentatively slated to open in January of 2020, about 50 homes or small businesses and eventually the nearby Sullivan East High School.

Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street talked to the board at a Nov. 28 retreat about the sewer agreement idea and how it might open a can of worms if the cities agreed to pay for feeder lines but made the county pay for trunk lines, which is the premise of the agreement.

Thomas Construction agreed to hold the bid only through Friday, Dec. 21, and Vice Chairman Randall Jones said he feared rebidding the project would result in higher prices since material prices have increased. The meeting morphed into a series of exchanges including board members Ireson, Matthew Spivey and Jane Thomas, Hughes and Jones.

“Can we spend our money?” Spivey said. “They (commissioners) said no resoundingly.”

Spivey said he’s afraid losses could be massive if the project completion is delayed because of the lack of sewer service. Ireson said pushing forward with a lawsuit would do permanent damage to the school board-commission relationship.

Hughes said the school board is “on the defense all the time. We never have the ball,” and that “Our job is to move forward” with the middle school project. He also derided Ireson’s call to help build relationships between the school board and commission.

“I don’t need lecturing on relationships,” Hughes said. “The facts are on our side here.”

Hull suggested the board have an executive attorney-client privilege session before the vote, but Hughes said that meeting would be held sometime after the vote. Hughes said if the sewer line standoff stops the middle school project dead, the matter would be expedited, but if not it might take a while.

“This is the healthiest discussion I’ve heard since I’ve been on this board,” Thomas said. “This is the kind of discussion that helps the whole board.”