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Athens discussions focus on schools, taxes

The future of Athens City Schools continued to be at the forefront of conversation on Monday night.

Immediately following the Athens City School Board’s Monday night meeting, Director of Schools Dr. Melanie Miller and Board Vice Chairman Chris Adams came to the Athens City Council’s study session for Miller to give a detailed presentation on Athens City Schools’ budget outlook and potential savings in future budgets. These details have been reported in a recent edition of The Daily Post-Athenian.

Following Miller’s presentation, Athens City Manager C. Seth Sumner posed a question to Adams to begin further discussion.

“What level of concern or conversation has the School Board had over looking at two and maybe even more years of operating at a deficit? Has that been a major item at School Board meetings,” asked Sumner.

He was referring to the school system drawing on its fund balance when its revenues fall short of expenditures — a practice that is not uncommon in public/government budgeting.

Miller noted in her presentation that the school system added nearly $2.4 million to its fund balance between 2014 and 2018. She expects by the end of the current fiscal year in June 2020 that nearly a combined $1.4 million from the fund balance will have been utilized to balance the school budget between fiscal years 2018-19 and 2019-20.

In response to Sumner, Adams noted that he has served under three school directors, including Miller, since he was first elected to the School Board in 2008.

“We’ve been talking about a consolidation/school efficiency program since 2010,” he said.

Adams said former Director of Schools Robert Greene took the lead on identifying possible long-term fiscal solutions for the school system.

“He recognized early on that operating in five buildings (four elementary schools and Athens City Middle School) was not something we could continue to do over an extended period of time,” he said.

Adams suggested that a review of the minutes from both School Board and City Council meetings, as well as joint meetings, in recent years would reveal that both governing bodies recognized that funding would eventually become an issue if the school system continues to operate with five schools.

“The thing that bothers me the most is the discussion about an unbalanced budget — that we’re operating in the red,” said Adams. “Most everyone in the room has either a personal budget or a business budget where you save when times are good and you spend money when times are tight.”

Adams explained that Greene positioned the school system to be able to save money for five years — starting in 2013 — in part by taking advantage of the federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) Grant.

“We understand now that we’re in a situation where that money that was being able to be saved is having to be spent to operate,” explained Adams.

The proposed consolidation of Athens’ four elementary schools onto one campus at the current site of City Park Elementary is among the major cost savings measures currently being considered by the School Board. Funding for the consolidation project is largely dependent on the result of next Tuesday’s sales tax referendum when Athens voters will decide whether to raise the local option sales tax from its current level of 2% to 2.75%.

Of the $1.7 million in new revenue the sales tax increase is expected to generate, the City Council has committed that $1 million of that amount would be dedicated to paying the annual debt service on the loan for school consolidation.

“We are very hopeful and quite enthusiastically optimistic that the sales tax will pass; that the citizens will choose to continue on with our plan; that this board (the City Council) will also support that program; and that we will be able to consolidate and become more efficient,” said Adams.

Adams added that the publicity given to each Council and School Board meeting, respectively, makes it difficult to discuss ideas to make the school system more economically efficient.

“… you really can’t talk about what ideas are good and what ideas are bad before you come up with the best idea because then people hear bits and pieces of it …” said Adams. “There’s tough decisions ahead of us regardless of what we do.”

Sumner agreed with Adams.

“Whatever the people choose (in the sales tax referendum), there are more difficult discussions ahead of the School Board and City Council,” said Sumner. “Aug. 20 doesn’t bring an end to anything.”

“It doesn’t,” agreed Adams, “but you’ve got to make sure that the citizens have the facts. Facts are important — facts about financing, facts about what the building program is going to look like, what the cost of that is going to be, what it’s going to cost to fund every leg of that stool, now and in the future. It’s important for two bodies, collectively, to make sure that we are all singing from the same sheet of music.”

Sumner noted that Athens currently has more than 7,000 registered voters, but, as of Monday night, less than 600 ballots have been cast in the sales tax referendum in more than a week of early voting.

“If schools and taxes doesn’t rile people up to vote, I don’t know what does,” said Sumner. “Please, citizens, this is your direct participation in your government and the future of this community. Get the facts. If you’re unsure of anything, call your elected officials, call staff, and then go vote.”

Athens Storybook Trail receives two new books

Two new children’s books have been funded and will ultimately be displayed on the Storybook Trail in Athens.

In April, the Athens Storybook Trail was established through the work of an eighth grade enrichment class, led by Athens City Middle School teacher Ginger Robinson and funded by a number of sponsors.

The Athens Storybook Trail is a historic implementation in both the community and throughout the state, as it is the first Storybook Trail founded outside a Tennessee State Park by students.

At the time of its inception, the first book presented on signs encompassing the North Mouse Creek Trail at Athens Regional Park was “Peace is an Offering,” by Annette LeBox.

On Tuesday, a group of graduates from the class and some faculty from Athens City Schools gathered at the Regional Park to view the two new books, which will be displayed at the park over the next few weeks.

The next two stories to encompass the trail will be “Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon,” by Patty Lovell and “Maple,” by Lori Nichols.

Robinson spoke about how exciting it is to see the project continuing to grow and noted additional financial support is still needed in order to keep developing the park’s library.

“We received book two and three and if we just get a few more donations, we can finish out a fourth book,” Robinson said. “We’re hoping that we can at least get one more (book) so that the signs can be changed out quarterly.”

Athens Parks and Recreation Director Austin Fesmire commended Robinson for what he believes to be the number one Storybook Trail in existence.

“I don’t have any doubt that we have the best Storybook Trail of anybody anywhere,” he said.

On that note, Robinson talked about how Fesmire, himself, played a crucial role in helping the group create a sustainable trail.

“The quality of the signs — which was Austin’s insistence — it just makes such a difference,” she said, noting she believes the Athens trail is more attractive than many others. “The colors are more vibrant, the pictures are good. It looks like the book.”

Another new addition for the trail comes courtesy of Fossil Signs, who manufactures the signs before they are composed with graphic designs. Robinson noted Fossil donated entrance and exit path markers “because they liked the project so much.”

Each page of a book, a sign, costs about $500. Robinson said the cost is partially because of how durable they are.

“They don’t fade. They should last for 10 years,” she said. “They are not vandal-proof but they are vandal-resistant. They can be cleaned really easily.”

For Athens City Middle School Principal Mike Simmons, the project’s importance can be seen in the long-term civic benefits.

“It’s exciting to see that they chose a product that will last longer than they did being a student at the middle school,” Simmons said, gazing at the signs. “Here we are at the fall of their freshman year in high school and they’re looking at the signs that just came in and just anticipating how much the city’s going to enjoy them.”

He added, “These students have left a legacy.”

Similarly, Maddi Burke, who was a member of Robinson’s class last year, noted she was happy to see how the work of her class is paying off for children in the community.

“It’s really exciting how well the project turned out and to be able to see all the signs after we’ve opened the trail,” Burke said. “It’s such a fun project, especially now to see how the little kids love to read them.”

Burke noted she believes the visual enhancements “really makes this park special.”

Though normally Robinson’s class takes on a unique project every year, this year, her class voted to continue to develop the Storybook Trail project, as they hope to gain more support for the outdoor literacy initiative.

Englewood Commission seeks solutions for infrastructure needs

A possible path toward a solution for infrastructure issues has been suggested in Englewood.

In May, the Englewood Commission discussed problems with several old sewer pipes that need to be upgraded, as there’s too much volume for some of the pipes to easily handle.

“We’re just overloaded,” Town Manager Richard Clowers said at the time.

At that time, Commissioner Randy Reddish explained that not enough has been done over the years to keep the lines up to date.

“I don’t think most people realize how bad our infrastructure is in this town because previous people in management of this town wouldn’t spend the money on it,” he said at the time. “I’m not saying anybody did anything wrong, bad or illegal. It just plainly wasn’t done.”

On Monday, the commission met with Jamie Cardin of McGill and Associates to hear suggestions from him on what the town might be able to do about the issues.

Cardin noted that the town has already applied for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to help start the process, but that another grant through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) could be a further option for the town.

“As best as I can tell, at the moment, you’re the only ones who would be eligible for it in the state,” Cardin said.

He noted that there are three factors working in favor of the town in order to get the grant — it is under moratorium, it has collection system issues and it has a pump system that contributes to it.

He noted that the grant could provide funding anywhere from 25% to 75%, but that the mostly likely scenario is that it would provide between 40% to 50%.

“It’s probably a one time thing,” he said. “You don’t get it twice.”

He said the next step would be to have a meeting with a USDA representative from Chattanooga in order to go over the grant and “what’s too much and what’s too little” for the town to take on.

Cardin did point out that this won’t be a short term project.

“You won’t do it all in one year — you can’t do it,” he said, noting that fixing about 30% to 40% of the sewer pipes is “most likely a five or six year endeavor.”

The discussion then turned toward how this project might help the town get out from under the sewer moratorium and Cardin said it would depend on if someone was wanting to bring a business into a specific part of town.

“If the town worked at a specific need in a specific area ... if you were to make those fixes in that area ... if you show before and after and you show you’re not increasing the problem, they would take that area off the list,” he said. “The rest of the area would remain.”

No decisions were made during the meeting and commissioners indicated plans to set up a meeting with the USDA Chattanooga representative to move forward with Cardin’s plan.

Niota to celebrate history with musical next week

The City of Niota will host a reading of a new musical honoring Harry T. Burn’s role in giving women the opportunity to vote.

On Saturday, Aug. 24, a reading of “The Burn Vote” will take place at the Niota Depot. Music and lyrics for the musical were created by Don and Lori Chaffer and the book was written by Chris Cragin-Day.

“The Burn Vote” brings to life the story of Tennessee’s historic tie-breaking vote in the national ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which created a legal pathway for women to vote.

That pivotal legislative moment was forged by Burn, a man who hailed from Niota.

City of Niota Mayor Lois Preece said she looks forward to the musical’s reading, as it will lay the foundation for the city’s future events, which will celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment.

“It’s the start of our 2020 celebrations for our 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote,” Preece said. “I’m excited that something like this, that River and Rail Theatre, would want to come to Niota to do this event.”

She said she is grateful the reading will occur in Niota, since the vote and Burn, himself, are so important to the city’s identity.

“Even though we are the home of the 19th Amendment — it’s still very nice of River Rail to do the first reading of the musical here at the Niota Depot,” Preece explained. “It’s something that no other town in the country can claim — that they had the deciding vote.”

The mayor said she is excited to celebrate the commemorative time in history, especially since that landmark decision still impacts her today.

“Personally, I’m so glad I do have the right to vote,” Preece said. “I wouldn’t be able to be mayor without that right and I love being mayor.”

She encouraged folks to come out and support the reading.

“It should be a very pleasant evening for everyone — full of history of women’s right to vote,” Preece said.

Though the musical has yet to be produced, she also stated in the future, she would love to see it performed locally.

The reading of “The Burn Vote” will take place inside the depot at 7 p.m. Aug. 24 and will have limited seating.

Refreshments will be available on site and donations will be taken for the city’s upcoming 19th Amendment celebrations in honor of the centennial.