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Dr. Choates renders resignation and BOE votes on mandating mask use

Sumter County Board of Education (BOE) held their regular voting meeting on 8.12.21. After hearing from a parent who desired a virtual learning option for her child, the BOE went into executive session. Upon coming back into open session, the BOE voted unanimously to accept Dr. Torrance Choates’ resignation letter. Choates’ contract was due to be up at the end of June 2022. He made his resignation effective for June 30, 2022. However, a mutual resolution was also voted on and accepted by all except Abbis Bivins. Following this vote, Walter Knighton was named as the interim superintendent and placed in the superintendent’s chair for the remainder of the meeting. No details of the mutual resolution were discussed, nor was any mention made of Choates’ role in Sumter County Schools (SCS). In his resignation letter, Choates showed his appreciation for the opportunity to serve and indicates he has personal reasons for his resignation.

With Knighton in the superintendent’s chair, he presented the report for the month. Principals of the schools gave an update on the COVID-19 impact, and all expressed the school days have been smooth despite some positive results being reported. With the superintendent’s report complete, the board moved into committee recommendations and votes.

Finance committee recommendations were accepted unanimously.

Personnel committee presented a rather lengthy report starting with all human resource recommendations being approved. Athletic and activity supplements were approved. A job description for a grant manager over CARES funds was approved. A salary adjustment for Walter Knighton and Kimothy Hadley was approved. A motion was entertained to hire bus monitors to assist the drivers in performing duties secondary to COVID-19. Carolyn Hamilton made a motion to hire the monitors but could not be specific enough to determine the number needed. Chairman Rick Barnes indicated to the BOE his opinion on the motion was too vague to go forward. His suggestion was “hire them but hire them correctly.” After discussion, the motion was worded in such a way as would allow SCS to begin initial processes of hiring, however another vote will follow to put exact number of positions to be filled. A list of incentives was presented and passed.

Policy committee then recommended changes be made to three policies. The first, regarding complaints and grievances passed unanimously. Second was another unanimous passage regarding solicitations. However, the third recommendation required more discussion than the previous votes. The dress code, which had already been approved and given to families via the 2021-22 school handbook was brought to the floor. Sylvia Roland questioned the schools’ plans on making parents aware of any new code, to which Knighton responded it would be done on website and social media. During the work session, Choates refused to recommend the new dress code stating it did not allow the appropriate authority to teachers and administrators to use their discretion. Without the handbook to enforce such an ability, the teachers and staff would be left with no enforcement power. Barnes questioned Knighton on such concerns. Knighton expressed he recommended the dress code and many administrators had input into the changes. When the vote was taken, Jim Reid and Rick Barnes opposed the motion, however it went forward with the remaining members voting in favor.

Property committee removed items from purchase request. No tractors were presented for purchase, however the BOE approved purchase of a hydraulic left and an itemized list of handheld tools needed for upkeep of school grounds. Also unanimous was a vote to procure quotes on touchless water fountains as well as beginning research into air purification options for the schools. Both items are secondary to COVID-19 concerns.

There were no actions under technology, however it has been determined more than 600 Chromebooks have not been returned to the school.

Old business for the evening included 3 contracts with Georgia Power to provide service to Sumter County High School. All three recommendations were passed although Abbis Bivins opposed all three.

New Business required much discussion, at times requiring Barnes to remind board members of decorum. Carolyn Hamilton originally presented a motion that all employees be mandated to wear face coverings/masks while on SCS property. Jim Reid immediately asked about maintenance and should those working outside in heat be required to wear a mask. After some conversation, Hamilton stated most people cutting grass wore a mask and didn’t consider it burdensome. Reid continued to state he was not in favor of mandating use because it was not appropriate to take away a right to choose from adults. Reid felt adults could decide based on their personal rights and the idea of “inflicting” the will of the BOE on someone was not ethical. Hamilton remarked “everybody has the right to be safe.” With further conversation, it was determined the suggestion, once again, was too vague to be enforced. The language then was massaged to include several options. Some included: masks be worn on all property; in building only; in building plus some other areas; on property but excluding some circumstances and persons; and eventually landed on all adults in the buildings of SCS. The vote failed 3-4 with Reid, Barnes, Roland and Bivins voting against a mandate.

This meeting as well as others can be found archived on the Sumter County Schools Facebook page.