Graduatin' the way it oughta be: Sullivan seniors may cross finish line at Bristol race track

Rick Wagner • May 8, 2020 at 9:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County seniors, in an online survey ending at 3 p.m. on Friday, are choosing between a traditional in-person graduation ceremony on or around Aug. 1 or one this month in which they walk the stage one at a time but have it edited together on video with other graduates and activities to make it appear as traditional.

Either way, as a bonus in a senior year that ended online because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the plan is to have a separate event where seniors have the chance to drive across the finish line at Bristol Motor Speedway, pending approval and scheduling by BMS officials.

The four county high schools, Sullivan North, South, Central and East, each would have separate events at BMS and drive on the track.

The Board of Education got that update on Thursday at its 4 p.m. work session from Director of Schools David Cox and secondary education supervisor Brent Palmer. They said the survey results, unless they resulted in a tie, would determine the path forward for the Class of 2020 graduation.


At the regular meeting which followed, the board voted 7-0 to approve the sale of the surplus Bluff City Middle School property to the owner of Business Information Systems for $170,000 and approved a proposed 2020-21 general purpose fiscal budget of more than $85.3 million.

The County Commission in a called meeting on Thursday night approved the sale of a small portion of that middle school campus to BIS for $20,000; otherwise the purchase bid on the main building wouldn’t have gone through. Hughes said the school system is trying to work out a deed restriction on another small parcel it owns and include the land at no extra charge or give BIS a quit claim deed for it.

The school board also voted 7-0 to approve a $85.3 million fiscal 2020-21 budget that will require using an estimated $5.15 million in unrestricted funds to balance the budget since revenues are projected to be only a little more than $79.5 million. That expenditure plan is a little more than $2 million more than the current year’s budget.


Cox and Palmer said a group of seniors were called together the week of April 21 to come up with and rate graduation proposals, followed by a group of 16 seniors the week of April 28 who narrowed the focus to two options. The BMS event, originally a separate option, was such a hit it is to be included in whatever proposal is adopted.

The two on the survey are an “in-person/virtual” ceremony in May where each graduate brings up to nine family or guests and walks the stage to get a diploma, with other graduates, speeches and such edited into a video; or traditional ceremonies, two each July 31 and Aug. 1. Palmer said if the second plan is chosen preparations would start July 20 if health officials allow.


Board member Mark Ireson of Colonial Heights said parents have contacted him upset that the survey, with a video from Sullivan County Regional Health Department’s Dr. Stephen May, seems to favor the “in-person/virtual” ceremony because of the mention of the Centers for Disease Control and Tennessee standards for reopening all the state rather that just considering Sullivan County.

“The math just doesn’t work out to them,” Ireson said. He said the county should just set a date like Kingsport, which plans Dobyns-Bennett graduation July 17-18 if allowed, and Bristol, which plans Tennessee High graduation July 24, and rely on May’s expertise instead of worrying about other areas of Tennessee with more coronavirus so they may not reopen as quickly.


Board Chairman Michael Hughes said he believes the odds are the Kingsport and Bristol school systems’ earlier graduation dates will be canceled or pushed out and are “a reach.” 

Cox said the county school system is simply giving students information about the three phases of reopening that are no sooner than 14 days apart and could be four weeks apart: phase 1, which allows groups of 10; phase 2, which allows groups of up to 50; and phase 3 that allows groups of up to 100, all with social distancing of six feet and recommended personal protective devices. Only after phase 4 would larger groups, such as graduation, be allowed.

“Our first obligation is to our seniors and to be truthful to them,” Cox said, although board Vice Chairman Randall Jones said he was optimistic the July 31/ Aug. 1 graduation dates could occur. If not, he said students starting the 2020-21 school year in person obviously would be in question.

“There is an understanding that is an aspire date,” Cox said of the county’s potential date, as well as Kingsport and Bristol dates.

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