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Sumter County Board of Education votes to return to classroom for new school year and debates rental agreement

The Sumter County Board of Education (BOE) met on Thursday, April 8th and held several votes. To open the meeting Mark DiConsiglio, representing the Ombudsman program, addressed the BOE with his concerns over choosing Fresh Start Academy as the alternative school option. The recommendation from Dr. Choates in the working meeting was Fresh Start be the provider of choice. DiConsiglio remarked on the decade long relationship they have had with the Sumter County Schools (SCS) and requested there be more transparency into the review and reward of the contract for ongoing services. Second to address the BOE was Don Porter of Georgia Power who also remarked on the partnership they have enjoyed with SCS. Porter remarked that working with Choates and others has made the relationship a good one and Georgia Power intends for that to continue. Porter remarked he would be looking for ways to further enrich the relationship and keeping his promise, Georgia Power gave a donation of over $10,000 to SCS.

Voting items for all passed unanimously, except for one which could not attain a majority vote because 3 members abstained from the vote. Recommendations from the finance committee to approve the financial reports, buying insurance around $319,000 and approving a $1000 bonus for all employees was approved. The property committee also recommended identifying 3 pieces of property as surplus, buying 3 propane buses (costing SCS about $30,000 per bus), furniture for the new high school (about 1 million dollars), equipment for the CTAE and 83 interactive boards for the high school, awarding a contract for landscaping and irrigations (about $414,00) were all approved.

Old business items addressed included an intergovernmental agreement with the City of Americus. Dr. Choates also recommended the schools return to an all-present traditional format for the 2021-22 school year. Both items passed unanimously. Another item, bringing much discussion was the Dwight Harris Summer Basketball League. Harris rents the SCS gym for 51 days to provide basketball activities for local youth. Carolyn Hamilton moved to change his gym rental rate from $6000 to $4000. Vincent Kearse provided the second and the discussion began. To begin, it was determined that no one had provided any financial information to indicate a rental rate change was needed. Chairman Rick Barnes reported without the information it would be difficult to determine how much COVID-19 would impact Harris’ program. Hamilton said it was up the SCS to provide the occupancy numbers to determine how the program would be affected. Barnes went on further to say “As a board member I’d like to know we got some math to back that (the impact of COVID-19) up. This (rental rate) has been negotiated with Mr. Harris for some time–years now.” Although unable to say how decreased the occupancy would be, Hamilton offered some information she had gathered about the general meter readings of areas of the school which included the gym. She reports the CTAE building and the gym together cost SCS about $4,000. She went on further to state that Harris’ income is made from money at the door, concessions and a fee to participate. That income went to pay the expenses of the program and he needs help in subsidizing those expenses. Further, Hamilton added if the occupancy maximum goes down by half, he only has half the opportunity to make money. No one was able to determine the maximum occupancy Harris would be allowed. In the working meeting, Sylvia Roland had asked for specific information on how many people bought a ticket for game and if occupancy rates would even be relevant or impacted. That information was also not provided. Chairman Barnes determined Harris would want to rent the gym for 51 days and the normal rental rate for the gym was $250 per day. Barnes remarked the rent was “already down to $6,000 because the previous school board supported his efforts tremendously. (Rental rate) got down to a reasonable number to him at $6,000 and now we are going to take it to $4,000, but we don’t understand how we are getting there number wise.” At this point Hamilton questioned Barnes on a meeting he had with Harris. Hamilton stated she was aware of this meeting and understood Harris to have offered Barnes some documentation, however Barnes wasn’t “interested in seeing the documentation he brought.” Barnes confirmed, that was correct and said he enjoyed the meeting with his friend, but he “declined (documentation) because if I look at it, I’m obliged to act on it.” Barnes then went on to once again state the current rate of $6,000 was a much lower rate than $12,700 which is the standard charge for 51 days. Jim Reid, the finance chairman, offered his opinion. “I’d like to remind you this is a for-profit individual– you set the precedent–you’re using the power of the state, you’re using your power….to tax every citizen in this county to give to a cause you deem worthy.” He made a point the vote should not be based upon the worthiness of the cause and later continued, “What I want you to focus on is the principal….you will be setting a precedence. He (Harris) already pays 47% of what anybody else renting the gym would pay. You’re saying he needs a reduction because of COVID. Did your property taxes go down secondary to COVID?” Reid went on further to add that many businesses felt the impact of COVID-19 and no reduction was offered to them. “Why is it incumbent on all the other taxpayers in this county to give him a reduction?” Reid continued to make the point it is every business owner’s responsibility to make revenue and expenses work to their advantage regardless of how worthy a service they provide. To further his example, he questioned fellow board member, Patricia Harris, who is in the hairdressing business. Reid asked if she was impacted by COVID-19, if her taxes were reduced because of the impact. Hamilton states the answers are not relevant, to which Reid responded, “yes, it is because it comes out of state and local funds.” At this point Kearse inserted his opinion which was that Harris’ services are not to be considered a for-profit business because he must take out a loan. He also wanted it known that Harris performs these duties as a community service, “he’s doing this for children’s sake to keep them off street. He’s doing a kindness not a business.” Reid remained steadfast in his view, that no matter the cause, the BOE has no right to put funding it upon the citizens. He likened it to “using your ability to tax to force someone to make a donation to a cause they may not agree with.” He further listed several other charities he believes do good work and continued, “we do not have the ability, the right, whether legal or ethical to tax—to take somebody’s hard earned money and subsidize someone else. The school board does not have the ability to do that. That is not ethical. That is not legal. And you should not use your power to tax—to take hard earned money from someone to give to a cause you may or may not agree (with).” Reid consented Harris’ cause was worthy but warned the next one might not be considered worthy and “you have now set precedent.” Again, Reid emphasized, “You can not use your ability to tax…to take from the person and give to a cause you deem worthy. We have the ability to tax to educate children. It (funding other causes) is not under our purview.” Kearse then interjected to speak on behalf of Mr. Harris. Kearse reports Harris would not want to cause dissension “because he is doing a good deed—he’d prefer for it to be left alone.” With that, Kearse withdrew his second. Chairman Barnes then asked if anyone else would like to provide the second, at which time Abbis Bivins offered it. Barnes then put the vote on the floor. Hamilton then withdrew the motion, which begged the question of Robert’s Rules of Order if the BOE had to vote the item since it had been called for. After some thought, and in “the best interest of the board” Barnes gaveled the motion withdrawn and tabled.

Voting then continued for the night. Passing unanimously was an understanding with Great Promise Partnership to offer student work-based learning options. The final vote had an atypical outcome as it did not gather a majority. Choates recommended accepting a 2-year contract with Fresh Start Academy. Hamilton questioned the length of time, to which Barnes clarified the vote on the floor was as written for 2 years. In the final vote, 3 abstained with no reason given for not participating, Roland, Hamilton and Harris were included in this group. Reid, Bivins and Kearse voted in favor and Barnes was opposed. With no majority gained, the motion failed, and after announcements, the meeting was adjourned.

This meeting has been documented on Facebook under the Sumter County Schools’ page.