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Sumter County Board of Education tackles many hot topics during work session

The Sumter County Board of Education (BOE) held their monthly work session on Monday, February 8, 2021. It was a rather lengthy meeting, and many topics were discussed prior to setting the voting agenda for the work session to be held this Thursday. Of priority was determining the BOE’s appropriate take of Americus Solar’s payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) portion. The Sumter County Payroll Development has brokered a deal with a solar company which will provide the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi to Sumter County. The project has demanded the Sumter County Board of Commissioners to invest much time and money into the initial phase. Although typically, a company will not address the BOE in PILOT payments, Americus Solar wanted the BOE to receive a portion of the payment. Thus, being the case, the BOE is invited to sign off on the agreement which includes acceptance of their portion of the PILOT funding. The Board of Commissioners has offered the BOE $300,000 of this payment. The BOE expressed disappointment in the number with a willingness to negotiate the number. They also expressed their disappointment in not being brought to the table at an earlier point. The PILOT will not cover the real estate portion of taxes, which the BOE will be able to tax at its regular rate. With the property being designated as commercial rather than the existing agricultural the county, as well as the BOE will see an increase financially. Rusty Warner of the Sumter County Payroll Development Authority (PDA) made clear that the pending agreement presents only one concern for the PDA. The business is a huge project and will have a large financial impact on the community. Putting Americus Solar in the position where they can not move forward presents the risk of losing those dollars. As far as how the PILOT is divided is no concern of the PDA, as Rusty stated, the PDA has “no dog in this fight.” However, it is evident that governing boards of the county working together in tandem is of utmost importance for making Sumter County an attractive choice for future business. As for future business, Warner also made clear finalizing this project opens the doors for many other businesses as other business finds having a solar farm an attractive option to also house their business in Sumter County. Mark Waddell, the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners (BOC) also was present to answer any questions. He fielded them in an effective manner and left the BOE with the solution they were willing to negotiate the terms of the agreement should they not find the current one acceptable. Chairman Waddell as well as Chairman Barnes emphasized the need for governing boards to work together. However, Waddell made the point that the BOE had “no skin in the game” thus far. Meaning, the county has invested time and money into providing county services for this project for a significant amount of time and they have incurred that time and expense. The BOE acknowledges they have had little to do with the project and emphasized yet again their involvement has been limited, and they feel this is because they lacked the invitation to be so. The conversation ended on a positive mutual respect and the BOE moved on to more agenda items.

Next up was to cover the ESPLOST vote coming up next month. The ESPLOST has been in existence for 25 years. The vote would allow the sales tax to continue another five years and would be earmarked for the remaining costs on the new high school. Citizens would not notice a difference in their pocketbooks should the vote pass. However, if the vote does not pass, the high school will go forward by raising taxes on citizens by 6 mills, meaning a significant increase in taxes. If the ESPLOST is passed, all citizens share in funding the school. If it does not pass, only those who pay property taxes will be affected.

Fresh Start Academy was next to give a presentation on what they could offer by way of an alternative school. The positives were listed out and the BOE asked questions regarding such benefits and on logistics of the program. Fresh Start would be housed in the current Ninth Grade Academy building and could serve over 130 students. Special emphasis would be on working in partnership with higher education facilities as well as the Americus Fire Department and the military should higher education not be the appropriate choice for a student. Fresh Start would also provide a sort of “wrap around” service in which they would provide incentives and supports for those students who enter the work force, or even require education while involved in the legal system. Fresh Start Academy would replace the existing Ombudsman program.

Mr. Knighton presented some excellent news on where the Sumter County Schools (SCS) stands with COGNIA, an accreditation agency. SCS has preformed with excellence in many areas and is showing proficiency with sustainability in these areas. While many target areas are addressed, perhaps the most impressive is SCS scored a little better than 326. The international average of schools in the COGNIA program is 275. This makes SCS significantly better than most schools participating in COGNIA.

Following the presentations, the BOE set the agenda for voting items which will be on the agenda for Thursday night’s meeting. Action will include votes upon financial reports, which indicate success. Although no need for board action, technology committee is making progress in getting students and teachers the tools they continue to need by way of virtual learning and ongoing needs in preparation for returning to school. Much of the technology needs will be paid for by the CARES Act. The BOE then entered executive session to discuss personnel or other issues not appropriate for public access. After returning from executive session, Dr. Choates presented information on opening the school doors for the final 9 weeks of the semester. Dr. Choates was prepared in his presentation and confident in providing the needed health, safety and educational needs of the students. However, he is flexible in meeting the needs which present themselves as the return to school is navigated day by day. As would be expected there are many “what ifs” the BOE addressed with Choates and he remains steady in his and the team’s ability to be proactive as well as provide a solution should a problem present itself. As is indicated in a public statement made earlier this month, Dr. Choates intends to make the recommendation the school open their doors with a virtual option. The students will be able to participate in athletic activities independent of which option the student may indulge in.

The regular voting meeting will be on Thursday, February 11. The meeting can be view virtually on Sumter County Schools Facebook page. All meetings since COVID-19 precautions were put in place have been archived on the page.