Overcrowding creates problems for county school, jail

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
As the county moves forward in the budget process, some serious looks are being taken at facilities around the county and whether improvements are needed.
As the population of the county grows and the buildings housing schools and a jail grow older, overcrowding becomes a problem for both. The needs of the school system as well as those of the Carter County Jail need to be assessed to determine what is the appropriate way to handle the specific needs of each.
Currently, the Carter County School Board is working with Tony Street, a consultant from the architect firm Beeson, Lusk and Street, Inc., who will help the board determine how to handle the overcrowded classrooms of Unaka Elementary, the decaying 60-year-old building that is home to Valley Forge Elementary School and lapsed technology in the classrooms.
At a meeting of the school board's Building Committee earlier this week, Daniel Holder, who is chairman of the committee, said the school board needs to "develop a long range plan to see what we need."
Members of the Building Committee discussed what type of school would be built, if the board decides that a new school is needed in the Stoney Creek community to ease the overcrowding at the current elementary school. Among the ideas which were brought up would be to construct a new Unaka High School facility and then either transferring the students from Unaka Elementary to the existing high school building or turning the current high school into a middle school which would house grades six through eight.
Holder acknowledged that Valley Forge Elementary is in need of work but that there is no way to expand the current building due to its location. He also stated that even if an expansion was built, the students would need to attend another school during the reconstruction process, which could take up to two years.
A majority of the members of the committee stated at the meeting that they believe that a new school in Stoney Creek is a higher priority at the present time.
Street will be conducting a comprehensive study of all of the school facilities in the county, prioritizing the needs of those schools and determining what can be done to meet those needs. He projected the study will be finished in four to six weeks.
A special task force that was created by the County Commission to deal with issues relating to the Carter County Jail has also decided that the needs of the county must be assessed in regards to the current jail facility.
At the Jail Task Force's April meeting members of the committee decided that in order to deal with the overcrowding of the jail and the state that the current facility is in, a needs assessment study had to be done to decide what was the best course of action to take.
"We put out a letter to seven different firms that specialize not only in correctional facilities but also in assessing the needs of a community," County Executive Dale Fair said in June, adding that five of those companies returned proposals.
At the Task Force's June meeting, members of the force selected a proposal submitted by a firm named Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon, Inc., (BWSC) which has a local office in Blountville. BWSC quoted a price range from $5,000-$25,000 to complete a needs assessment study for the county.
Earlier this month, members of the Task Force interviewed representatives from BWSC and have decided to use that firm for the study if funding is approved by the County Commission. "They've got to get the money approved at the County Commission meeting on Monday to get the study done and then we'll have the go ahead to start," Sheriff John Henson, a Task Force member, said Thursday afternoon.
According to Henson, overcrowding at the jail is a serious problem and one that needs to be addressed soon. "The jail overcrowding is a problem and it's getting worse. It's not going to get any better," he said. "The jail is busting at the seams right now. The jail is averaging over 200 people a day and that's way over the limit." The current facility is certified to hold 91 inmates.
In addition to the overcrowding issue, there are other problems with the current facility, according to Henson. "The jail is just worn out. Everything in it is falling apart," he said. "You're spending more out on the building right now than what payments would be on a new jail."
Henson stated that he feels that in addition to looking at the needs of the jail, whether to renovate the current facility or build a new one, the county also needs to look at alternate ways to pay for whatever needs to be done to the facility, such as seeking grants. "The backs of the taxpayers are broken as it is," he said.
Editor's Note: Star Staff writer Lesley Jenkins contributed to this story.