Board offers to forgive past-due funds for future favors
The Wilson County School Board has offered an olive branch to the City of Mt. Juliet April 4 in a nearly two-year-old lawsuit over the city's past failure to share its liquor-by-the-drink (LBD) tax revenues with the county schools.
Now the next move is up to the city.
The board voted 3-1 during its Monday, April 4 meeting with Zone 3 Member Don Weathers absent, to forgive the $272,865.35 that the city owes the county schools - if the city waives an estimated $449,000 in construction fees for the four new schools scheduled to be built in the west end of the county.
During School Board Attorney Mike Jennings' report, Zone 4 Member Linda Armistead made the motion, seconded by Zone 2 Member Bill Robinson, that Jennings contact Mt. Juliet and its City Attorney Gino Marchetti to propose the compromise.
If the city agrees, the lawsuit that has been pending in Chancery Court since the county filed it on the school board's behalf in June 2014 would be settled out of court - and Jennings, for one, said the settlement might be a good solution.
In the short term, the city would be released from having to come up with the money it still owes the county schools, Jennings commented to the board - but the schools ultimately would benefit from having to pay about $176,000 less in construction fees.
"Off the cuff, down and dirty," Jennings said, "it sounds like a good trade-off to me."
The motion passed 3-1 with Zone 1 Member Wayne McNeese voting no and Weathers absent. Ironically, McNeese and Weathers were the two board members who voted in November 2014 to accept the city's request for a $200,000 offset or deduction from the overdue alcohol tax revenues while Armistead, Robinson, and Zone 5 Member Larry Tomlinson - the board's chair - voted to press forward for full payment in a 3-2 split.
'I just didn't like it'
McNeese didn't comment during Monday night's meeting - but afterward, when asked about his "no" vote against the proposed compromise, he declared, "I just didn't like it."
Cities all across the state of Tennessee were alerted about three years ago that they hadn't been paying a share of their liquor tax revenues to local schools - as required by state law. So fairly promptly, both Lebanon and Watertown reached agreements with the county schools to pay their overdue revenues.
For instance, the Lebanon City Council agreed two years ago to approve an agreement with the school board to pay the city's past-due share of its LBD revenues in 10 equal payments of $81,121.52, for a total of $811,215.25.
However, the Mt. Juliet City Commission requested a waiver from paying their city's overdue share.
Mt. Juliet holds out
The commissioners' reasoning was that they had waived $397,275 in construction fees for the school system, according to figures provided by City Manager Kenny Martin's office, and the city deserves some credit for having waived those fees.
Neither Lebanon nor Watertown waived fees for school building projects in their communities, Mt. Juliet officials pointed out - so construction fees have been a bargaining chip in the Mt. Juliet-school board dispute for quite some time now.
In November 2014, Tomlinson explained his vote against Mt. Juliet's $200,000 offset request: "I don't know that we have the right to waive that. I asked the board attorney, and he said he didn't think that we could."
However, it's possible the negotiated settlement proposed Monday night might be different, legally.
Time to cooperate
Martin's office also noted two years ago that Mt. Juliet had spent $3.7 million for road construction on Golden Bear Parkway - even though Mt. Juliet High School, which is located on the parkway, is outside city limits.
"I think Mt. Juliet is being penalized for being a good citizen back when we built Mt. Juliet High School and Mt. Juliet Elementary," McNeese said in November 2014. "I was disappointed in the board's action."
Last July, however, the board unanimously voted to continue pursuing legal action against Mt. Juliet - which is sharing its current LBD revenues as required by law - to collect the overdue revenues.
And Monday night, Armistead said the board's past actions were based on the situation in the past - but now the time has come for cooperation and for saving both the city and the schools the costs of extended litigation.
City officials favor, Armistead says
Since the school board has voted to build the county's next high school on Mt. Juliet's north side, at North Greenhill and Lebanon roads, Armistead said the school system has benefits to gain from negotiating a settlement.
Armistead also said she has talked with Mt. Juliet city officials about her proposal and received favorable responses - although she declined to specify which officials, or whether she has spoken with Mayor Ed Hagerty.
Following Monday night's board vote to instruct Jennings to negotiate with Mt. Juliet, Jennings said his next step would be to inform the city and the Lebanon Special School District (LSSD) - which is a co-plaintiff with the county schools - to get their responses.
Schools ask MJ for annexation of school property
Next, Armistead moved that the board direct Jennings and Director of Schools Dr. Donna Wright to request annexation into Mt. Juliet for all county school property in the Mt. Juliet Urban Growth Boundary (UGB).
This step would eliminate the water and sewer surcharges that those schools and future schools are paying or will have to pay, Armistead pointed out - thereby saving the system additional funds.
The affected properties include Mt. Juliet High School, the planned middle and elementary school next to MJHS, West Elementary and the planned elementary school on Central Pike. This motion - also seconded by Robinson - passed 4-0, with Weathers absent.
In other action, Wright reported that enrollment is up 527 over this date last year, and said 30 of those students enrolled after spring break.
When Tomlinson asked if she knows where the children came from, Wright said she doesn't have an exact breakdown, but all came from outside the school district.
Major conference coming
Initially mentioned by Wilson Central's student board member Simone Anthony, and confirmed by Wright, the annual State Student Government Conference is scheduled to be held at Wilson Central in October 2016.
The WCHS Student Council and student body are already working to prepare for the event, Anthony said.
Wright also announced that Knoxville lawyer Chris McCarty will be hired to help Jennings respond to teacher Matt Mock's appeal in court of his six-month suspension following "pranking" incidents at Tucker's Crossroads School last spring.
Board given estimates
Deputy Director of Schools Mickey Hall also presented the board with a packet listing the potential costs to resurface the track at MJHS and make various improvements to sports facilities at WCHS.
Hall also gave the board an FYI report on cost estimates for school construction which will also be presented to the Wilson County Commission's Education Committee Thursday evening. However, no copies of the report were available to the press.
He would need to clear The Wilson Post's request for the report with Jennings, Hall said, before he could give it out for publication.
The board voted to hold a special work session to discuss the school construction costs and possible sports-related projects on Monday, April 25, at 5 p.m.
Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.