Education issues dominate 6th District town hall

Posted 4/17/19

Education issues were among the top concerns discussed during a town hall meeting organized by 6th District Bradley County Commissioners Erica Davis and Tim Mason.

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Education issues dominate 6th District town hall

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Education issues were among the top concerns discussed during a town hall meeting organized by 6th District Bradley County Commissioners Erica Davis and Tim Mason.

Mason thanked those in attendance for coming to the meeting at Waterville Elementary School. He reminded them the only thing he promised in his campaign when running for office “is I’d be fair, honest and you’d get your voice.”

“There’s really some great things going on in Bradley County,” Mason added.

Davis said they organized the meeting because the county commission chairman asked the commissioners to share their priorities, then share the compiled list with their constituents.

“Tonight we want to talk about what’s important to you and what’s important to the 6th District,” Davis said.

PIE Center:

Kyle Page, the project manager for the Partnerships in Industry & Education Center, or PIE Center, made a presentation about the project.

“A lot of our students have a limited understanding of local career opportunities and postsecondary (education) opportunities,” Page said.

When operational, the PIE Center will offer up to 26 career choices and paths local students can follow, Page said. Among them are physical rehabilitation, food service, diesel mechanic training, heavy equipment operators and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“This is very purposeful education,” Page said.

While the PIE Center concept has received support locally and even from Gov. Bill Lee who set aside $1 million for it in his first budget, Page said there have been challenges. A specific challenge is organizers have found not state money “for bricks and mortar” to renovate the old American Uniform Building where the PIE Center will be housed. There are also legislative and insurance issues, as well as garnering corporate buy-in for the project, he added.

Dan Rawls, a former county commissioner during the time the PIE Center was approved about two years ago, asked how much money private industry has invested in it so far. Page said none, but organizers are working with private industry to look at costs per section to ready the building for occupation.

“They are helping us build out their space,” Page said.

Rawls asked if the $10 million figure he’s heard to finish the PIE Center is an accurate number. Page said he defers to Bradley County Schools leadership to answer that, but at a cost of about $55 per square foot, it will cost about $10 million to put a “warm dark shell” in place at the PIE Center.

“The industries are primed for this, the workforce is primed,” Page said.

Schools:

In discussing school issues, Davis invited Dr. Kim Lackey Fisher, principal at Black Fox Elementary School, to talk about the needs there, especially overcrowding and the need for more classroom space. Fisher said it has been eight years and 10 days “since this issue hit our area.” That is when tornadoes ravaged parts of Bradley County and damaged Blue Springs Elementary School, causing those students to be assigned to other schools.

The need for more classroom space at both Black Fox and North Lee elementary schools was brought up earlier this spring by the County Commission’s Education Committee. The early estimate to add classrooms at both schools is about $1.1 million.

“This is not a spontaneous request … this is eight years in the making,” Fisher said. “It’s fair for my boys and girls to have a building where they can go to school. It’s the right thing to do for those students.”

County employee salaries:

The Bradley County Commission has set improving employee salaries as a top priority for the coming budget year. Davis said commissioners have heard of employee turnover costing the county money for training workers who move on to higher-paying jobs. In order to make salaries competitive with other counties, the lowest salaries need to be increased, she said.

Mason said there are 627 county employees “and of course we want to keep them all.”

Davis said both the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office and the Juvenile Court have committed to putting funding for salary increases on their departments’ lower salaries. For both the BCSO and Juvenile Court, the Corrections officers salaries are the lowest, with BCSO officers earning a $29,500 base salary and Juvenile Court officers starting out at $20,000 per year.

Emergency Services:

Audience members asked about improving salaries for Fire, Rescue and EMS. County officials have mentioned in previous meetings that emergency medical technicians and paramedics, especially, can go to work for private ambulance services and make significantly more money than they can working here.

There was also discussion of needing more ambulances to serve Bradley County.

Paying for services:

The subject of how to pay for the various priorities was also discussed during Tuesday’s town hall meeting.

Mel Griffith, a former county commissioner, said he believes the No. 1 priority of the commission “should be no tax increase.” He added he understands people believe every need is important, but commissioners need to say no sometimes “because we can’t afford it.”

Adam Lowe, another former county commissioner, said Bradley County is in the position it’s in today with needs because previous generations didn’t do enough. He encouraged residents to come to County Commission meetings “and ask yourself who’s better to pay for it … you or your kids?”

Other areas of discussion included reducing debt, the county’s infrastructure and the availability of broadband throughout the county. Davis said the County Commission took action to made Bradley County a “Broadband Ready Community,” which will allow providers like Volunteer Energy Cooperative and others to apply for grants to bring broadband service here.

At the end of the town hall meeting, Davis and Mason thanked their constituents for attending and sharing their thoughts on what the county’s priorities should be.

“It’s not all doom and gloom tonight,” Mason said.

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