Lawsuit adds tension to Lakeland High project

Cary and Lillie (Lou) Melton are among a group of Lakeland residents who refuse to accept their city’s and school district’s plans to issue $60 million in bonds without getting public approval. Of that amount, an estimated $36.5 million would be used to build a high school.

The Meltons have taken it a step further, however, filing a lawsuit Friday to stop any bonds that violate state law.

They and other vocal Lakeland residents have demanded a referendum if the city is to enter into any new debt. The proposed bond would refinance the new Lakeland Middle Preparatory School and also pay for construction of the high school, which would open as early as 2020.

The Meltons also are asking the court to take action for alleged violations of the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.

Lou Melton declined to comment on the pending lawsuit and referred questions to her attorney, Robert Spence Jr. Lakeland Mayor Wyatt Bunker and Lakeland School System Superintendent of Education Dr. Ted Horrell also declined to comment.

Spence said Tuesday that both sides want to get a ruling on an expedited basis, but the court decides the schedule. He also said, “The issue is whether or not the bond issuance creasts a debt that the citizens of Lakeland have to pay. If so, the state requires that they be allowed to vote.”

Lakeland city attorney Chris Patterson was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday. The city’s plans are for Lakeland’s Industrial Development Board to issue public improvement bonds before a Dec. 31 deadline when President Donald Trump’s tax legislation is expected to take effect. It would impact refund bonds, making them taxable for municipalities.

The city’s position is that such bonds don’t require citizens’ approval.

In 2015, Lakeland residents voted down a proposed $50 bond that would have paid for both the middle school and high school.

Susie Richardson, a resident of Lakeland for the past three and one-half years, believes the mayor and board have arrogantly denied citizens a voice.

She wrote, “After the citizens voted 60/40 against excessive bond debt for a middle/high school in 2015, in the very next meeting they announced they were swiftly proceeding with a capital outlay note for a lesser amount to build the middle school. (No citizen vote is allowed/required for this more expensive type of debt/note.)”

She questioned the rapid-fire succession of meetings that have been held, leading to the votes in favor of the bond issuance. She also took issue with the time limits imposed on citizens when they speak to the city board at public meetings. Richardson also alleged that the city board and its supporters have a strong social media presence that leans on anyone with an opposing view.

“I love my city,” Richardson wrote. “But I hate knowing that the voices of citizens who dare oppose or question the leaders are being silenced by our very leaders.”

School board member Geoff Hicks has a very different view on whether citizens’ voices have been heard. The day before the Meltons’ lawsuit was filed, Hicks said citizens actually have voted in favor of the high school by choosing representatives who support its construction.

“They voted for four unabashed supporters of a complete K-12 system in Lakeland in September 2015,” Hicks wrote. “More recently, in the special election held in May of 2017, the top two of three candidates directly participated in the decisions made on Tuesday night (to pursue the bond issuance). Wesley Wright, whom I feel won the election based being the strong supporter of a Lakeland high school, voted to fund the new high school as a BOC (Board of Commissioners) member.”

Hicks continued, “Maurice Denbow not only voted for the funding as an IDB (Industrial Development Board) member, he gave a thorough speech in support during the meeting. Combined, they garnered 83% of the votes cast in the election. I would bet the third candidate, Billy Rodgers, would have done the same.”

Opponents of the bond, however, still have plenty of questions and accusations.

Julian (Jay) Tyler of Lakeland listed the reasons he opposes building a new high school in Lakeland. He wasn’t alone in describing adversarial relationships between bond opponents and city/school leaders. Among his reasons for opposition, he alleges:

  • Government machinery and bureaucratic process to circumvent the electorate
  • Misusing Industrial Development Bonds to finance construction
  • Deceptive, minimal and obscure schedule changes of public meetings
  • Wasteful stewardship of tax revenues by using the more expensive lease revenue bonds
  • A too-expensive project for the current level of community development

Tyler concluded, “Lakeland will one day need and have the financial strength to build (and operate) a high school. Not now.”

Celia Abbott of Lakeland said she supports local schools, but she has a caveat. “I do not believe the manner in which our elected officials are moving forward is in the best interest of the citizens of Lakeland (including our school age children) by not giving us a chance to vote on the $60 million bond. Taking on this large amount of debt will require a tax increase in the foreseeable future to pay for other general needs of the city.”

She continued, “My only wish is that our elected officials would postpone the bond a few more years to allow for more commercial business growth (via The Lake District and others) as well as more housing developments to alleviate the burden on the citizens with higher taxes.”

Lakeland Mayor Wyatt Bunker, however, is on record stating that the bond issuance is not going to cause a property tax increase. Last week, he said, “It’s built into the tax rate. We have enough revenue to cover the bond debt and maintain the same level of city services.”

Lakeland resident Melanie Mays noted that highly rated Arlington High School currently accepts Lakeland students. She wrote, “Doing this now will split the current enrollment between Arlington & Lakeland since Arlington offers open enrollment. Lakeland has taken the position that they will not offer open enrollment & no child outside of Lakeland will attend a Lakeland school. When asked how they plan on funding such a small school, Ted Horrell stated that by combining a middle and high school the funding for the middle school will supplement the high school programs since it is less expensive to educate children in middle school.”

She also complained about the lack of research into what drives enrollment in a high school and questioned whether a small Lakeland high school could really compete for students with larger nearby public schools.

Mays then characterized the bond issuance as “gross overspending on the financing using nontraditional bonds so that the citizens cannot vote.”


CAROLYN BAHM is the editor of The Bartlett Express. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to carolyn.bahm@journalinc.com.