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Board of Education discusses contingency planning and dress code

During the regular meeting of the Sumter County Board of Education (BOE) on July 8, 2021, a concern was presented over being fully prepared for the system to make the moves necessary to open Sumter County High School. Superintendent Torrance Choates and Property Chair, Vincent Kearse have been in meetings with both the architect as well as the builder of the school. Kearse presented his concerns over the completion of the building. According to Kearse, the construction company is having trouble getting finishing materials delivered and securing labor. Kearse suggests a contingency plan be put into place should the unmet variables prove to take longer than expected. The architect of the project is more guarded in his assessment of completion than the builder. Parrish, the construction company, appears to be more confident in completion and intend to be completed by August 3rd. In addition to inside the building, there are concerns over the sod and irrigation being completed. Punch lists for the classrooms are completed, the rest of the building is the concern. Parrish is working 7 days a week to accomplish the goal. There were then concerns presented about taking the Sumter County Schools (SCS) professionals from their tasks for the other schools. Choates made clear custodians would be serving the appropriate schools, however the maintenance department is assigned to the entire system. There will be a requested meeting between building representatives and SCS representatives on Wednesday, 7/14. Further update and clarification on the status of the building is expected. Furniture is scheduled to arrive this upcoming Monday for the classrooms. Furniture is set up by the seller and should take a week to complete. However, Ignite is running significantly behind the high school. There is some concern about the Certificate of Occupancy status. In review, Jim Reid indicates his understanding of the “wings” of the high school to be completed. Barnes indicates he also believes the lunchroom is completed. The wings of the high school house the classrooms. As the status continued to unfold Carolyn Hamilton kept verbalizing her desire for a contingency plan. Barnes, Choates, Reid and Kearse were actively addressing some of the ideas for a contingency and Barnes insured her that a contingency plan is the desire of the board. Choates will formalize the plan. Choates also ensures the board SCS is on timeline for the move as far as packing up current property. Choates states, “we are going to use everything at our disposal to make it happen.”

All BOE members were present for the meeting, however, Hamilton, Sylvia Roland and Patricia Harris were present virtually. After longer than normal conversation about adopting the agenda and accepting the consent agenda, the meeting proceeded onto further action.  The BOE approved a fund raiser and school use for the Sumter County Fire Department. The finance reports, paying membership fees, Nutritional Department bids as well as their salary schedule were approved. Lastly, Reid reports a millage rate will come up for vote next month. There will be a millage rate reduction, this is the third reduction in four years. Hamilton expressed some concern over this, and Reid reported more details to clarify. He stated again the vote will be next month and continued to explain the current value of a mill and how this makes a reduction possible. As Chair of the Personnel Committee, Hamilton presented the fact an executive session will be needed at the end of the meeting. Policy Committee Chair Bivins presented changes to the nutrition handbook for approval which was given. Questions were asked of Bivins regarding the dress code. Hamilton stated a vote could not be taken as it was not on agenda. The BOE clarified where it was on the night’s agenda. Mr. Knighton then took over presenting the changes. Being present at the meeting of educators who made suggestions, Kearse explained what he witnessed. According to Kearse, educators examined and voted on several items which ultimately compiled the list of recommendations given to the BOE. Policy Chair Bivins reports not knowing the policy presented as she had not received the revised policy. Of significance is the BOE has already voted on 21-22 handbooks which include dress code. Changes would require the handbooks to be realigned. The BOE had many questions and Barnes states, “I didn’t realize we were going to attack it in this manner.” He indicated the changes were more vast in scope than expected. Hamilton referred to it as a “misalignment” and reminded the board the dress code should be limited to addressing the issues which would hinder the education of students.  Reid did not agree on her point. He reminded the board of SCS’s mission which is to make students college and career ready. He stated “going ahead and dressing appropriately for the workforce” is something to be considered. Reid stated, “There is proper business attire, and they can go ahead and start learning that.” Barnes reports having a problem with policy changing from their discussion on Monday to what was presented them at the meeting, especially when the BOE approved 21-22 handbooks reflecting the old policy. Hamilton states she feels like the policy was outdated and the changes reflected what needed to happen to get the dress code functional “according to today’s laws and regulations” related to the student’s rights. Barnes then questioned if he heard Hamilton to be saying the staff had sought legal advice in suggesting the dress code change. Hamilton stated the policy “needs updating.” Barnes again brought up the handbooks and the dress code had to be the same. Kearse states he sees the vote as one to change a few things in the dress code, not to inherently change the entire handbook. Barnes responded, “Respectfully, Mr. Kearse, this is more than a few changes.” Kearse then pointed out the authority behind having the educators making the decisions as they are most versed in “working with the children every day.” Bivins again expressed her idea to table the item. Several of the items the members interpreted to change included allowing facial jewelry such as eyebrow and nasal rings, no belts, and no hair in face, which would include bangs. Barnes and Choates did make the point the staff have discretion to say, “that’s wrong” however Barnes wanted the educators to have the enforcement power of a specific dress code and it should not be “left wide open.” Choates states, “We have to be really careful not to take the backbone of the code of conduct out.” Barnes ultimately took Bivins’ suggestion and decided to table the changes for further discussion in August, despite the fact school also starts in August.

Property had nothing for action, however it was clarified the score boards approved last month are in fact $11,000 a piece and not $22,000 per board.

In other action, the BOE approved Helping Hands Ending Hunger Program. Due to an inability to find English language arts teachers, a request was made to contract out the position in which two teachers not employed by SCS would utilize virtual technology along with SCS support staff in the classroom. The contracts would last a year. Kimothy Hadley reports Doughtery and Lee Counties are using this type of teacher and have good reports on the experience. Bivins opposed, Reid abstained and the remaining approved the request. An interactive projector and screen were requested for the primary school. It passed unanimously. Six hundred Chrome Books, not exceeding $186,000 were requested from CARES funding due to a “total loss” on some distributed for the 20-21 school year. Reid reports not understanding how 600 Chrome Books were destroyed within a year and questioned the accountability measures in place for the destruction. There was an inability to determine how many Chrome Books were lost/destroyed. Choates reports the accountability measures placed on students and parents were limited due to them being supplied through federal funds. However, depending on the damage, the parent/custodian of the student agreed to pay as much as $300 to replace the Chrome Book. The BOE requested information on determining where the Chrome Books were going and why there was continuing purchasing. Bivins expressed her thoughts that parents should have their funds for destroyed property given back if the CARES funds were paying for replacement. Choates and Barnes explained why doing so would not be appropriate. Reid opposed the motion to purchase 600 Chrome Books and the rest approved the request. Additionally, 70 more carts for the Chrome Books were requested for storing and charging. The purchase was unanimously approved. Georgia Power submitted a contract to SCS for their services. Reid explained the contract; however, the address of the property is incorrect on the contract. Additionally, Parrish is currently paying the power bill and SCS would have to pick up the electricity cost should construction take longer than expected. A motion was made then revised to consider a legal review and a correct address of the contract. The motion failed 3-3 with Harris abstaining. The gentlemen voted in favor, and the ladies opposed the motion. Lastly, the BOE went into executive session for personnel reasons. Back in open session the personnel committee recommended 4 rescindments, 15 transfers, 27 new employments, 1 Family Medical Leave Act and 1 long time substitute. All recommendations were approved.

The BOE retreat will be held on July 29 from 5-8pm. Dedication of Sumter County High School will be August 5 at 10:30 AM. Open house will be held on August 5; younger schools will be from 4-6pm and the middle and high schools will be from 5-7pm. Back to school convocation is August 6 at 9am at Sumter County High School gym. The next BOE work session is August 9 at 6pm and the regular meeting will be on August 12 at 7pm, both meetings can be found on the Sumter County Schools Facebook page, as can past monthly BOE meetings.