At a Sumner County School Board meeting on June 18, one day after Sumner County citizens overflowed the County Commission chambers of the legislative body to criticize a plan for a new Sumner County school campus that requires a paved greenway and sewer line cutting through landowners’ properties by an act of eminent domain condemnation, Sumner County School Director Dr. Del Phillips ridiculed those citizens and County Commissioners supporting them.
Phillips, who has held his Sumner County position since 2011, complained to the School Board members in attendance about the length of the June 17 County Commission meeting and the objections to his plan that may cause a delay in the new school campus opening.
Dr. Phillips minimized the number and called attendees “really, really, really mad folks,” made reference to a County Commissioner being an “armchair civil engineer” and “untrained,” said it was a “glorious discussion” and “it was a fun, fun, fun, fun time.”
The property to be taken by eminent domain, if an easement agreement can’t otherwise be reached with the 19 landowners by the public utility, White House Utility District, will be for a sewer line to serve Sumner County Schools new 265-acre elementary-middle-high school campus to be called Liberty Creek. The campus will be located off Long Hollow Pike, between Upper Station Camp Creek Road and Latimer Lane.
The acquisition of land for a public utility is one of the designated purposes for which eminent domain powers of condemnation may be used by a county, provided that property owners are compensated. An appraisal for the property to be condemned is required and must be based on the highest and best use at the time of the taking.
Dr. Phillips attended the 6 1/2 hour June 17 County Commission meeting, which, as reported by The Tennessee Star, in addition to the 760 live on-line views and the 187 views since, was attended by more than 200 people, though typically attended by just a handful of citizens at best.
More than 20 attendees signed up to speak, many of whom addressed the body with their concerns about the proposed paved greenway and sewer line.
Initially, impacted landowners objected only to the paved greenway, which would have the public going through their property, while the landowners would still have to maintain the area, pay the taxes and bear the associated liability.
Landowners and two County Commissioners in particular, Jeremy Mansfield (District 11) and Moe Taylor (District 1) struggled to get answers from Sumner County officials about the easement, paved greenway and sewer line.
As a result, they conducted their own independent research through direct conversations with White House Utility District (WHUD), Tennessee Department of Conservation and Environment (TDEC), engineers not associated with the project and representatives of Metro Nashville’s Public Works Department as well as on-line.
Their conclusion was that they had been given false information, starting with them being told that a paved greenway or access road is a regulatory or WHUD requirement, but expanding beyond that to the sewer line itself.
Specifically, an independent environmental and wastewater engineer told Commissioner Mansfield, which he relayed to his fellow Commissioners during their meeting, that the school would need no more than an 8-inch sewer line, while the project engineer is calling for a 15-inch sewer line. Additionally, only a gravity fed sewer line was considered – reportedly, the worst type for rural areas.
A pressurized forced main, an option not considered, would be less expensive and could be installed within the 12-foot utility easement, reported Commissioner Mansfield during the County Commission meeting. It would, however, be more expensive for developers to connect to later.
Another option – sequencing batch reactors – or step system, which would allow a septic treatment system to be contained entirely within the 265-acre Liberty Creek three-school campus, was not even considered.
These facts, along with other pieces of information, have raised suspicions that the sewer line is not just for the Liberty Creek school campus, but intended to serve future development in the area.
For instance, a former Sumner County Planning Director was recorded saying at a July 2017 meeting that sewers are not cheap and that when developers come into his office, after two meetings, they disappear when they realize how far they have to run sewer. The Planning Director stated that sewer, not water or electric, is what really dictates development because “it’s not affordable.”
Additionally, County Mayor Anthony Holt, who owns more than a hundred acres of land in the area, went door knocking in 2014 to purchase the two parcels of land for the 265-acre Liberty Creek school campus, drove the greenway initiative, and bragged publicly that he has been offered $40,000 an acre for his land some of which he initially paid just $685 an acre for.
The engineer on the project, Jim Harrison, P.E. is a principal of Civil Site Design Group. Harrison sits on the Board of Directors of Forward Sumner, the county’s $100,000 per year economic development arm headed by Brentwood resident Jimmy Johnston, along with County Mayor Holt. Harrison contributed $1,000 to Holt’s 2018 re-election campaign.
While some members of the County Commission came to their June meeting prepared to remove the paved greenway from the project, a measure which ended up passing by a vote of 20-3, the many questions raised during the meeting by citizens and Commissioners alike drove one Commissioner to refer the issue back to a committee for further review.
One such question was the pavement substitute, called Geoweb, that would be installed on top of the sewer to create a vegetative covering. There was concern about the system’s required usage of gravel, basically creating the access road landowners opposed. Additionally, there was no discussion of the cost of the Geoweb alternative and whether it would fit into the bonds already issued for the school construction project.
Sumner County Schools Director Dr. Del Phillips, after having attended the County Commission meeting on June 17, relayed the happenings to the School Board at their regularly scheduled meeting on June 18.
Dr. Phillips, a Mississippi native, came to the Sumner County Schools (SCS) Director position in 2011 from the Columbus Municipal School District where he was recognized for his significant educational accomplishments as the Superintendent, which he has certainly carried forward to his current role.
The SCS website touts that Dr. Phillips worked with community to pass a $22 million bond issue to build Columbus Mississippi Middle School, a state of the art school campus. But, in Columbus, where Mississippi law establishes that the tax rate is set by the superintendent of schools, the district suffered financially due to the tax rate Dr. Phillips’ set as explained by the Columbus Chief Operations Officer.
As recently as 2017, Dr. Phillips’ name came up at a Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce legislative luncheon, where he was criticized by first-term Republican State Senator Chuck Younger as an example of “waste” in education.
The Columbus Packet reported that Younger thanked God someone else was hired, noting that Phillips left the Columbus school district in debt because he “wasted good money” to build the new Columbus Middle School.
The Columbus Dispatch, which continued to follow Dr. Phillips after he took the position in Tennessee, reported on his first big controversy in Tennessee, when in 2012 Dr. Phillips shut down Sumner County Schools for 10 days trying to get an additional $7.91 million from the County Commission on a then $197 million annual budget.
More recently, The Star reported that parents called for the resignation or termination of Dr. Phillips over his “Stage 1” re-zoning plan, which would have some students going to three different schools in as many years pending the construction of the new Liberty Creek school campus.
According to county records, Dr. Phillips, who still owns property in Mississippi, is no longer a property owner or property taxpayer in Sumner County. After owning a home in Gallatin’s Fairvue Plantation for about three years, the home was listed by Sumner County Commissioner Paul Goode, an agent with HALO Realty, the Hendersonville Standard reported.
The HALO Realty website lists Danny Hale – a former member of the Sumner County School Board at the time of Phillips’ hiring – as the Founder and CEO of HALO, and lists Maclin Holt, brother of County Executive Anthony Holt, as another agent.
At the June 18 School Board meeting, Dr. Phillips started off by saying that he and Scott “are a little bit sleepy,” caused by the adjournment of the 1:30 a.m. County Commission meeting they attended.
Dr. Phillips was referring to Scott Langford, who attends the school board meetings as the Assistant Director of Schools for Instruction, but Langford is also the Chairman of the County Commission.
Elected to the County Commission in 2014 while he was a Vice Principal at White House High School, Langford was promoted to Principal and then to his current role in the central office. He was elected Chairman of the County Commission in August 2015.
Calling it a “long, long meeting at the county last night,” referring to the 6 1/2 hour County Commission meeting the evening of June 17, with “a really long, extended discussion about the sewer for the new school campus,” Dr. Phillips added, “I thought that would be about the last thing we’d be talking about for six hours.”
Dr. Phillips told the School Board that for about 18 months, work had been underway with the engineer to get a sewer plan, do surveying, staking, approach property owners and working with White House Utility District and TDEC.
In October, the process reached a point where a company that purchases or captures easements through condemnation of the land for WHUD made the first contact with the 15 landowners along the creek at long Hollow Pike and turn up to go into the campus, according to Dr. Phillips.
“So there was resistance early on,” said Dr. Phillips of the landowners, adding that in meetings with WHUD, he expressed to them that he “did not believe those particular homeowners would ever be satisfied with any design or any type of purchase agreement.”
Dr. Phillips said it came to a head with the greenway, which is a county project and has nothing to do with the school system sewer.
“Rightly so, Scott and some of the County Commissioners said we can understand that, so they were going to release that portion of the easement so it would be sewer only.” When that occurred, “they still didn’t want the easement,” said Dr. Phillips, not relaying to the School Board members all of the other information the landowners and County Commissioners discussed the prior evening relative to the sewer line itself.
“So, at the end of the day, they along with about, I don’t know about a hundred really, really, really mad folks came over to the county and they cursed everybody in sight – me, everybody else – about trying to provide toilets, working toilets to the new school, which I thought would be kind of a low standard,” relayed Dr. Phillips, underreporting the actual attendance by about half and with no evidence of anyone cursing, as Phillips sat most of the time outside the commission chambers in the County Administration Building lobby with head of Forward Sumner, Jimmy Johnston.
In fact, Chairman Langford had given the ground rules for public comments prior to anyone speaking, and Sheriff Sonny Weatherford and deputies were there to enforce them, removing anyone who the Chairman deemed to be out of compliance.
Dr. Phillips said that after a resolution restricting the easement to the sewer and some other proposed changes passed, “one Commissioner kind of muddied the water a little bit” by referring the issue back to committee.
Looking in Scott Langford’s direction as he did for nearly every sentence in his 30 minute explanation to the School Board on the sewer lines and budget, Dr. Phillips then commended his SCS direct report Scott Langford for his role as County Commission Chairman, “So it got a little bit confusing there, and Scott did a good job of kind of getting it back, but we talked for about an hour and 15 minutes or so about the comment.”
There’s some confusion with “very few” of the County Commissioners, said Dr. Phillips, “that they’re going to have a big discussion about how the sewer should be ran, contrary to what the engineer and WHUD says, which is a glorious discussion to have an untrained person talk to you about how they think the sewer should work. It was six hours of it, right Scott?”
Dr. Phillips’ position is that the funds have been allocated and that the County Commission now has no legal authority, per a first quick check with the attorneys.
Dr. Phillips says it just comes down to some folks “that want to cause chaos.”
Earlier that day, Dr. Phillips said he talked with WHUD, Commissioners, “obviously Mr. Langford,” and they’re hopeful that within the next week or so they can get it back on track, which he said means that they’ll have another meeting and “rectify the vote.”
Speculating on how the situation developed, Dr. Phillips told the School Board that some of them have been in these situations with “people screaming at you for 4 ½ hours and you’ve had two 10-minute breaks and it’s six hours deep in a meeting at midnight, sometimes you don’t think,” gesturing from his head, “I mean you’ve kind of been battered around” and the next day realize “I really didn’t want to do that.”
Dr. Phillips reiterated that he told WHUD back in October that the landowners “will be mad and they’re going to be mad forever, but we have to have water and sewer at the school.” But, he added, “We can’t do something today to make seven people happy then handicap the schools and the county for 50 years. You just can’t do that. I’m sorry, but you just can’t do it.”
Dr. Phillips’ recount of the County Commission meeting then moved to the SCS budget for fiscal year 2019-2020, which begins July 1, which was inadvertently tabled, despite Chairman Scott Langford’s efforts to get it passed so that pay raises could be implemented. Instead, a continuation budget was passed, which will delay raises for employees other than teachers, as Dr. Phillips explained, although the pay increases will be retroactive.
The SCS budget, Dr. Phillips thinks, has plenty of support to pass, even if that isn’t until September when the tax rate is considered.
Dr. Phillips stated that the SCS budget, which includes a $2.8 million increase in local funding over last year, balances against the tax rate, although he didn’t specify which tax rate.
However, Dr. Phillips said, the county budget “wasn’t necessarily built that way,” adding that there was “too much unknown out there” to approve “a budget with expenditures that they don’t have the revenue stream to pay for secured,” essentially confirming that the revenue neutral certified tax rate from the five-year property reappraisal will be exceeded.
Other than the resolution and the continuation budget, Dr. Phillips said he didn’t what happened in eight hours (which was actually 6 1/2 hours), but told the School Board, “it was a fun, fun, fun, fun time.”
He added, “Those of you that called me, I said please do not come, and I did that for a reason, because I knew there was going to be no reason to be there,” which seems contradictory to the questions that were later asked by the School Board members.
Dr. Phillips, changing course at one point, said that “it” – presumably referring to the issue with the sewer line – “will delay the school,” referring to the new Liberty Creek campus. The length of the delay will depend on how long “we kick the can around over there,” presumably meaning the County Commission.
“If we kick it around for two months, it’s still going to miss the first of the school year, so you’re not going to move,” alluding to students who will be rezoned from other schools within the SCS district. Dr. Phillips admitted that there was a “really tight window of construction, because a lot of work has to be done. It’s a big campus.”
He added that it might work out fine and take some of the sting out for those students staying in classrooms for an additional year.
Looking uncomfortable, shrugging his shoulders and scratching his head while looking down, Dr. Phillips advised the School Board, “There’s not going to be an opening in ’21,” the planned move in timing which was set to start with bids and awarding contracts in between June and July 2019.
Dr. Phillips said he can’t in good faith put out a bid for a $100 million campus with sewer running through it, without the sewer already being in the works, calling it “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Questions came from School Board members Sarah Andrews (District 4), Jim Hawkins (District 6) and Tammy Hayes (District 1), wanting clarification what appeared to them as a sudden turn around by the County Commission.
Dr. Phillips’ responses never addressed the specific concerns expressed by the landowners and County Commissioners, other than to say that the county wasn’t going to make a change to the sewer design.
“We have qualified people that have already said this is where it should go,” said Dr. Phillips, adding, “It’s not the time to be an armchair civil engineer.”
Dr. Phillips also said that the county had to be a partner in the condemnation of the property, in accordance with their statutory requirement to provide water and sewer to the school.
He said there are other methods under the law to do that, but they are costly and timely. Dr. Phillips added that “we,” WHUD and the overwhelming majority of the County Commissioners don’t want to do that.
But, Dr. Phillips concluded, “You guys know me, I’ve already made the phone calls and got the wheels moving that if we have to do that, we have to do it.”
The final comment was left for Assistant School Director for Instruction/County Commission Chairman Scott Langford. After providing the details on the resolution passed at the County Commission meeting the night prior, he said, “We gave everything the homeowners asked for.”
“We’ve got a small group of Commissioners that want to move the goal post constantly, and so, basically, the resolution really clears up and should make the sewer easements easier to get.”
“From my perspective,” not specifying if that perspective was from his role as Assistant School Director or County Commission Chairman, “there’s nothing that the Commission can do to question the sewer, but that’s the boondoggle that we’re in now to clear up.”
The video of the Sumner County Commission meeting can be watched here.
The video of the Sumner County School Board, with the report from Dr. Del Phillips from the 3:22 mark to 36:00, can be watched here.
Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.