Annexation's effect on schools a balancing act

By Julie Fann

Balance is everything. Applying balance to municipal government, however, is an entirely different beast altogether. As cities grow in population, officials must consider how every aspect of life will be affected, especially the city's school system.
   "Our urban growth plan provides for orderly development to manage growth in the city, but often laws that affect things like city schools, that are enacted by the state legislature or federal government, often come in the middle of the year, and we have no control over that," said David Ornduff, Elizabethton's Director of Planning and Development.
   The recent annexation of properties bordering the Milligan Highway at the west end of Carter County has prompted ongoing concern from those in the Elizabethton City School System about how to comfortably manage. The annexation added 645 new residents to the city.
   "We are always receiving requests for annexation into the city by residents so that their children can attend city schools. However, people must realize that so much must be taken into consideration for annexation to take place - not just education, but providing water and sewer services, as well as police and fire protection," said Ornduff.
   Due to limited funding, this school year the Elizabethton City School System did not provide bus transportation to students who live in the newly annexed area of Carter County. Superintendent of City Schools, Judy Blevins, believes that is why she and school board members were not faced with juggling student numbers to meet state guidelines.
   "We are not providing bus transportation to that area. I feel like, if we did, we would be affected more," Blevins said. "It could mean that we will purchase another bus and hire another bus driver. Mr. Ornduff and Mr. Stahl have been very helpful."
   Blevins said that if the city continues to annex it could cause problems with the city school system's ability to meet statewide mandates.
   "We could be overcrowded at Westside and not able to meet statewide mandates. We will need to focus as a school board with city council in considering re-zoning or the possibility of building a new elementary school," she said.
   Judith Morgan, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education, referred to Tennessee Code Annotated 49-1-104 as she explained what the statewide mandates are.
   "There are two parts to each requirement, the average and the maximum, and it is judged on each individual school level," Morgan said. For example, in grades K-3, the average class size cannot exceed 20 students, and no individual class can exceed 25. In order to maintain an average of 20 students, some classes must have fewer than 20, and some will have more.
   The same rule applies to grades 4-6, except the average is 25, and the maximum is 30. For grades 7-12, the average is 30, and the maximum is 35.
   "So, on the high school level, let's say you have a class of 10 students. If you must maintain an average of 30, then you can have four classes with 35 students in them, and that class of 10 students will balance it out," Morgan said.
   Blevins said re-zoning boundary lines in the city might help offset the problem so that kids would go to a different school with more room. Her concern, however, is that more kids will move into the west end of Carter County, adding to the number already there.
   "As students move into that area, we have to take those students in as well. We have to keep a spot here and there for students moving in and out. There is also the issue of hiring additional teachers and, if so, where to put them," she said.
   The number of tuition paying students in the city school system is getting lower and lower, Blevins said, because there just isn't room for them. "Our numbers are so tight as it is," she said.
   Ornduff said large annexations are planned and programmed so that they don't affect the schools to any great degree.
   "Any time a city enlarges its boundaries, there is a shift in boundaries. That fact will dictate adjustments in school boundaries," he said.