Editorial: Sale of old schools should benefit entire county

Editorial Board • Feb 21, 2020 at 10:00 PM

Sullivan County officials remain at odds over who sells and gets the proceeds from the sale of former school buildings. It seems to us that county government and not the school district should dispose of surplus public property unless legal issues determine otherwise.

At issue are four pieces of property: the old Holston Institute near Tri-Cities Airport and an adjoining ball field, and two former middle schools — Bluff City and Holston Valley. The Board of Education recently voted to declare the properties surplus and is planning to sell the Holston Institute and ball field properties.

However, Mayor Richard Venable objected to selling the Holston Institute property. Another wrinkle in the matter is a deed restriction on the property — a reversion clause to the heirs of those who donated the property. If the land ceases to be used for educational purposes, it would then revert to them.

Venable said he has asked County Attorney Dan Street to look into the matter and that he will do everything he can to keep any of the school properties from being sold until ownership is established, even if that requires going to court. BOE Chairman Michael Hughes has instructed board attorney Pat Hull to do likewise.

Until 2015, the board generally — but not always — followed a practice of declaring a closed school as surplus and turning it over to the County Commission for disposal, usually via auction. Hull says county officials in effect told the school system that it could dispose of surplus schools, though Venable denies that, as does Street.

The board has previously disposed of schools, once in 2015 with Brookside Elementary and again in 2018 with the sale of Weaver Elementary.

Street said he looked into the issue around that time and determined the school system, through the school board, had every right to sell property deeded to it. “The statutes clearly say they (school systems) can sell property,” Street said. “The way I remember it, the school board did it on its own.”

But it is the County Commission, not the school district, which levies and collects the taxes that pay for everything the county consumes, buys or builds, including schools. And it should be the County Commission, and not the school district, which disposes of and receives compensation for old school buildings.

School districts have but one purpose while the County Commission is responsible for everything else necessary to operate a county. The proceeds from the sale of old schools in effect belong to the taxpayers and should be put to the widest possible use.