Ignite CCA funding and committee meetings bring conversation at BOE meeting

Published 1:22 pm Wednesday, March 9, 2022

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The Sumter County Board of Education (BOE) met at 100 Learning Lane on Monday, March 7, 2022, for their work session to prepare for the regular meeting to be held on 3.10.22. EJ Jackson assumed the chair left vacant after Jim Reid resigned to seek another elected position. The meeting opened with the Georgia School Board Association making a presentation on what they could offer by way of strategic planning. When the presentation was over, the board went about addressing regular business.

The Ignite College and Career Academy’s (CCA) funding resources were brought up again this month. Abbis Bivins brought the question which Ignite’s CEO, Dr. Don Gilman was present to answer. Questioning Gilman, she asked, “That part of the school is receiving private funds. And private funds that are received stay on that side of the school. So (your) facilities—is that private and this side of the school is public? Or all of it public?” Gilman explained the CCA is a public school “but we are equipped in our charter to receive private funding so we can continue the work we set out to do and that is to provide extra opportunities for our students.”

Ignite CCA is part of Sumter County Schools (SCS). It serves upperclassmen who want to create a professional “pathway” to prepare them for college or a career. As was explained when the CCA first began registering students, the CCA offers a unique educational setting. A student might enter into the program wanting to take the steps needed to be a nurse. These steps are very individualized to the student. While enrolled, the student may go to South Georgia Technical College and complete courses in the field. A student might prefer a nursing career which would demand a traditional college experience. The CCA would help facilitate classes at Georgia Southwestern in this case. It is likely the student will be completing their high school courses as they are completing college level courses. Procuring college credits in this manner has a greater impact than simple time efficiency. The credits are not personally charged as a public school student may be dually enrolled. This has the potential to save the student a large fiscal investment into their college tuition. Additionally, there are work-based experiences which allow the student to “practice” their career choice. A potential nurse may benefit from the CCA’s partnership with Pheobe Sumter Medical Center. In a scenario Dr. Gilman explained to the Times Recorder in 2020, the experience is rich because it has the potential to eliminate, tweak or confirm the nursing career. To eliminate it as an option means the student does not waste his/her time, money and effort in an area which he/she will not be successful or fulfilled. Also, it could very well be the case a student who originally thought they may like to be a nurse, actually simply wanted to work in the healthcare field. A work-based learning placement at PSMC would allow this student an opportunity to work with computers in his/her chosen area of healthcare and find it to be a good fit. Or the student may be the perfect nurse and have the decision confirmed at the hospital. To have such a career choice confirmed allows the student very confident footing on which to go further. While Ignite is very much a part of SCS, it has a special identity just as the high school or middle school would. As Gilman explains it, private funding allows the student “to have things that they normally wouldn’t be able to have. It’s all a public school system and all are a part of Sumter County.” Bivins followed up with, “So all the donations, all the proceeds you receive stay in that side of the school in the Ignite part? So, nothing will be shared (with the Sumter County High School)?” Gilman confirmed that donations made specifically to Ignite CCA would serve Ignite CCA students.

After Gilman confirmed with Carolyn Hamilton that Ignite hopes to partner with students from other school systems and those students would be funded by their home school district, Bivins asked further questions about funding. She asked Gilman if private funds were received, would they “share” with SCS. Gilman responded no and gave an example. If the football team were to raise funding for the activities of the team, he would not expect that Ignite would receive a portion of that funding. Nor would those funding the team appreciate Ignite taking their funds. “I have no claim to that.” Bivins went further by making the point that “these are the same students.” Gilman agreed, they were SCS students. Bivins continued, “Doesn’t our side furnish the building and have that part built?” Gilman reminded Bivins of a $3.4 million dollar grant community volunteers under the umbrella of One Sumter procured. While it doesn’t cover the entire cost, it does provide significant fiscal impact. Bivins then stated, “This side over here is totally different from the Ignite side. Your part is state of the art but like our part is thrown together. So, I don’t know, I’m lost. Why the whole school don’t look the same?”

Ignite CCA and Sumter County High School together cost Sumter County residents more than $50 million and required multiple people, including the tax payers, dedicating themselves to see it come to fruition. This effort was sustained in earnest for about five years. The current board was elected in November of 2020, they took their oath thereafter. For the majority of the time the high school was being developed, Edith Ann Green, Alice Green, Meda Krenson, Mike Busman, Rick Barnes, Sylvia Roland and Jim Reid where the sitting board members. The ribbon was cut early August of 2021 under the leadership of Dr. Torrance Choates, SCS Superintendent.

Gilman reported of the conception of Ignite. The community of Sumter County residents who researched and designed the grant inputted a specific idea for the physical building, as it would promote an eagerness to invest in college and career interests by looking similar to buildings in higher education settings. As Gilman states, it is “designed for successful transition into work, college or technical school.” Concepts and renderings were not only community approved, but they were also approved by the previously sitting BOE. Gilman also remarked on the architecture of the building, “It has cut down a lot on discipline problems….it has a profound impact on student performance.” At this Bivins voiced liking what Gilman was saying and suggested “this side” should take a look at “your side so the discipline issues wouldn’t be what they are.” She then began to close her questioning by opining “we all supposed to be together I guess, teamwork.” Gilman spoke why private funding is important. It allows our SCS students to compete with their peers. It also allows them to enjoy benefits a more metro county might be able to offer because it has a more fiscally lucrative tax base. As Gilman closed out, Hamilton remarked she enjoyed her recent tour of the academy and confirmed experiencing the “higher educational institution feel” about it.

Other conversation of the night included an air filtration system that will be voted upon this week. The filtration system was born out of concern over COVID-19. A new system has a price tag over a million dollars. Rick Barnes reports some of our HVAC units are less than three years old. He also reports our units already provide some of the services which a new filtration system reportedly offers. Additionally, there is concern a new filtration system may not be able to perform up to standard in the humidity which is indigenous to Southwest Georgia. In an effort to be a good steward of equipment already in place there has been consideration placed upon adding to the existing units. With reports from experts in hands, the BOE will vote on utilizing their options on Thursday.

Last month Carolyn Hamilton brought forth for consideration eliminating the committee meetings. She stated not being able to attend them, as well as transparency and wanting to see the information the committee considers when making a recommendation to be among the reasons for ceasing the meetings and bringing the discussion to the work session and/or voting meeting. She reminded the BOE that Sylvia Roland made a motion to keep the committee meetings and the vote was tied 3-3 leaving the meetings in place. However, the vote has been called again this month. New to the board, EJ Jackson asked for the arguments to both keep as well as discard the meetings. Sylvia Roland restated her thoughts on the issue. “I like knowing I can tell all of you what we discussed in our meeting.” Roland went on to make the argument that as the chair of the curriculum committee she was able to take on the tasks of the committee, knew where to complete her research on behalf of the BOE, and was aware and utilized the resources available such as Sumter County Schools (SCS) administration. As with Roland, each BOE member chairs a committee meeting and they are open to all citizens who choose to participate. Roland summarized her experience of committees as, “I put my trust in all of you to share your committees just like you put your trust in me and I like the current way we do it.” Vincent Kearse presented concerns about what the structure and the time element would be. In regard to the meetings, they “go a little too long.”

There are six committee meetings and three of them generally run an hour, while the other three can last as long as three hours. It would be the BOE’s responsibility to cover not only the business of the work/regular meeting, but also cover the committee meetings. Typically work sessions are lengthier with the board meeting being between one and three hours. The voting meeting is shorter. Similarly to the committee meetings, the task of the work session is to cull the information down to recommendations.  The voting meeting is typically one to two hours. These times are fluid and change with management style of the chair and topics covered during the meetings.

Rick Barnes added to the argument of being in favor of committee meetings. One of the features he appreciates is having a “champion” of the committee, typically the chairperson who can be relied upon to gather the needed information and present the pertinent information during the work/voting meeting. He also states, “committees tend to get a lot more work done and then you can bring it before the board.” As it stands now, a BOE committee examines the work, defines a recommendation and brings the recommendation back to the board at large where they can further explain or justify the reason for the recommendation. Without committees, the BOE will be culling large amounts of information as an entire board.

Carolyn Hamilton and Abbis Bivins presented their view on why the committee meetings should be eliminated. Hamilton states not being part of the committee discussions is a negative for her. The committee meetings have information the entire board “isn’t privy to and what comes back to regular meeting generally is, ‘this is what we recommend,’ or ‘we don’t have anything to recommend for votes,’ so therefore there is no discussion of what happened in the meeting.” She further stated doing away with the meetings would provide “transparency” and offer an “even keel” from which a BOE member can cast his/her vote. Ultimately, she concluded, everyone would get “the same amount of information at the same time.” Abbis Bivins offered an example of why she found the committee meetings to be a negative. She reports for two years she has asked the finance committee time to be changed because she “can’t attend because I have a full-time job.” She mentions she was told the BOE job would be part time. She also states the finance committee’s work “is important to us but is not shared with us.” She then reports “(I) don’t want to be left out of the loop.” A typical finance report during the work session, after the culling process, includes where the general fund stands, how much has been spent, how much has been received, if those rates are where they should be based on the budget year, the ESPLOST monies received for the month as well as to date, what the average monthly ESPLOST fund is, School Nutrition standings, transportation budget and the finance director’s upcoming tasks such as an audit. Bivins did not mention what additional information she wanted presented. All the needed reports are available for the public to view and are public record. In closing, SCS Superintendent Walter Knighton expressed his intent to ensure the committee meetings would be taped and available to the public. Knighton has started the process this month.

Lastly, the mask mandate will be revisited as action will need to be taken by March 13, 2022.

The voting meeting will be broadcasted on the Sumter County Schools Facebook page under the same name. This and prior meetings are also archived for viewing.

**Report updated at 1316 on 3.9.2022