Sumter County Board of Education monthly meetings cover “phase-in” plans, lighting and working with Americus

Published 12:08 pm Monday, March 15, 2021

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The Sumter County Board of Education (BOE) held its monthly meetings this week, with the planning meeting being on 3/8 and the regular meeting being on 3/11. Both were available for viewing on Facebook, where they are currently archived. The BOE received several updates over the two meetings to include construction, information on Ignite College and Career Academy, Ombudsman offerings, Americus-Sumter High School achievements and the County Extension Office reported on 4-H opportunities. After committee reports, voting items were established. Although Abbis Bivins, Carolyn Hamilton, Vincent Kearse and Patricia Harris voted to not allow families a choice in returning to school for the last nine weeks, Abbis Bivins requested Dr. Choates, the Sumter County Schools’ Superintendent, to present a “phase-in plan.” In February’s meeting Dr. Choates had recommended SCS offer families a choice of returning to a traditional school format or continuing with the virtual option. Sylvia Roland and Jim Reid voted in favor of allowing the choice. Due to the vote tally, Chairman Rick Barnes did not cast a vote. Dr. Choates gathered information needed for the BOE to have an idea of what a phase-in strategy would consist of. Prior to the presentation taking place, Jim Reid made a request stating, “So we don’t have a repeat of last month, I request that Dr. Choates be able to complete his presentation in its entirety.” Rick Barnes indicated his intention to grant the request.

Dr. Choates and Dr. Mays, who works in the primary school, presented a phase-in plan based upon what is best time frame “for what the schools have going on.” The school calendar itself has many significant dates on it to include breaks and testing. Georgia Milestone Testing consideration, nutritional needs and transportation needs would all need to be addressed, and according to Choates, the only school who could feasibly consider an option for the final 9 weeks is the primary school. “Time is of the essence” Choates admits when considering starting with such limited amount of planning time. The strategy would have to be extremely quick and start with identifying which students wanted to return to class and their location so transportation logistics could be worked out. Additionally, the Nutrition Department would have extraordinarily little time to prepare for the children to return to class. The required state testing brings another set of stressors and in Choates’ opinion is not to the benefit of the student to attempt a phase-in during this period. However, to give the BOE an option, Choates’ and Dr. Mays, sought out the needs of the students, parents, teachers and staff to make it happen. Drs. Mays and Choates presented the options with the phase-in for primary school starting on 4/5 and being completed on 4/19. Spring break would then take place at the end of the month. After Mays was finished presenting the plan she, the staff and Dr. Choates had worked on, Abbis Bivins made several comments and questions. She states, “Truly love this phase-in plan. Do have concerns about all kids to come back. If she can plan to phase her students back in, I don’t see a problem with the other schools phasing in also.” Dr. Choates relayed the challenges again. He added, “the phase-in we are talking about needed to happen two weeks ago—this is a rush job. I know the variables of what has to take place. We are essentially out of time.” Bivins response to Choates’ concerns was, “With a phase-in in process I don’t see that its going to take a lot of planning. Other schools start today. I don’t see the problem unless you just don’t want to do it.” Choates again commented on the time element with consideration for what is needed to open doors to the students. “Four weeks ago was the time to do it.” Bivins continued to seek clarification, “What you saying is it’s impossible to phase K-12 into school system?” Choates offered again, “I am not going to say ‘impossible’ but it will present major, major, major challenges for faculty, staff and disrupt testing” Choates followed up by voicing his concern over the stress students and parents would also feel under such a pressured timeline with significant testing taking place. In the conversation between Bivins and Choates, Barnes interjected to state what he understood Choates’ assessment to be. “Only way to not be detrimental is to bring back Dr. Mays’ group? Only way not to cause problem is bringing in one school? It is detrimental to kids and testing?” Choates indicated Barnes had understood him correctly. Reid then requested permission of Barnes to ask a question, which Barnes granted. In turning to Bivins, Reid asked, “Ms. Bivins I would like to know what brought about this change of heart. You were adamantly opposed last month—you scolded Dr. Choates—” Barnes then asked Reid to directly ask the question. Reid asked, “Why the change of heart?” Bivins listed off reasons to include a vaccine, cases decreasing, and offering a phase-in “instead of bringing them all in at one time.” She continued, “I understand what you all are saying but as a superintendent I don’t see why he couldn’t make it work.” The presentation given, the challenges outlined, and Dr. Choates’ as well as Bivins’ opinions made known, the conversation ceased with no further plans to pursue a phase-in plan.

In the regular meeting held on 3/11, the voting items were passed. Included in the approvals were the financial reports to include a one-time stipend to employees. The cost for the stipend could be anywhere from $227,000 to $37,000 depending upon how the State of Georgia reimburses the school system. This passed with Bivins voting against the recommendation. Personnel committee conducted their business in executive session and ultimately recommended that the BOE accept three retirements, one release of contract, five resignations, four new hires, four Family Medical Leaves, advertising of two positions at CTAE and one long-term substitute. This passed unanimously. The property committee recommended the approval of approximately $84,000 for weight room equipment as well as nearly $40,000 for band uniforms. This also passed unanimously.

The meeting then moved into old business which brought with it a lengthy conversation on practice field and stadium lighting. While the BOE had approved a contract with Parish Construction for the lighting, an acceptance was given to Georgia Power to provide the same services plus some additional advantages. Although this issue has admittedly been “convoluted” and the BOE spent a significant amount of time trying to determine why there was such confusion. In the end, the BOE voted to rescind their agreement to contract with Parrish to provide the lighting and went with the Georgia Power package which ultimately will save the school system $80,000. The vote was approved by all, except Bivins who voted against it.

Under new business there was further confusion between the BOE. A letter had been sent out by Dr. Choates to the City of Americus regarding asking the city to pay close to $11,000 for expenses related to a lift station in which the city operates. Jim Reid and Rick Barnes expressed their opinion was the school system should take responsibility for the payment of this amount and not put the burden upon the City of Americus. A motion was made to enter into an inter-governmental agreement in which the type of access to the lift be changed from an “open cut to a jack and board” approach. The BOE voted unanimously to update the agreement.

In further action, the BOE approved unanimously to reimbursement themselves as well as the superintendent for expenses related to a training. They approved an understanding in relation to the 4-H programming to be offered and approved a Memorandum of Understanding which has received approval from their legal team in relation to the monies to be received from the Americus Solar Project.

After a lengthy executive session and a vote on personnel issues, the meeting was adjourned.