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March 21, 2001


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OPINIONS
Zach Mitcham

A sad day
for county schoolsIt is a sad day for Madison County schools.
The thick stack of papers released by the county school system this week tells a shocking story about Comer principal Mac Almond, who submitted his letter of resignation this past week.


Frank Gillespie
James Madison should be remembered

Last Friday, March 16, 2001, was the 250th birthday of the man for whom Madison County was named. On that day, I asked 25 people to identify this famous man and describe his accomplishments.


SPORTS
Diamond Raiders split games during week, stay at .500 mark

The Raiders split four contests on the diamond over the past week, keeping their record at the .500 mark at 4-4.
The squad notched two wins over Morgan County in a doubleheader Friday, downing the Bulldogs 4-1 and 6-2.


Neighborhood News...
BANKS COUNTY
Missing child found in woods near grandparents' home
A 5-year-old child was missing for several hours Friday before being found in the woods near his grandparents' home in Banks County.
Some 25 men from the Banks County sheriff's office, fire department and emergency medical service (EMS) gathered at the home of Bill and Carole Jackson on Cates Bridge Road to search for their missing 5-year-old grandson, Griffin.

More than 500,000 gallons of water lost when vandals open hydrants across Banks County
Banks County lost more than 500,000 gallons of water over the weekend after vandals opened fire hydrants across the county.
Banks County water employees and firemen were kept busy Saturday night, trying to keep up with vandals who were opening fire hydrants across the county.

SPLOST passes
Banks County voters overwhelmingly voiced their support for a proposed special purpose local option sales tax Tuesday. Voters approved the SPLOST 732-82 on a special ballot.

Country music legend Watson performs at BCHS
Country music legend Gene Watson performed Saturday night at Banks County High School to a fan-packed auditorium.
This was his second year appearing at BCHS to help the Banks County Band Boosters Club.




News from...
JACKSON COUNTY
Trial begins for December 1998 murder case. Jury sequestered as Wayne Cochran goes on trial for murder of Kimberly Warren. A 12-member jury was selected Wednesday and opening arguments were given in the murder trial of Emory Wayne Cochran, who is charged in the December 1998 murder of Kimberly Warren.

Zoning Foes Win In Nicholson ElectionWheeler, Kitchens Win Council Seats -- Voters in Nicholson braved gusting winds and driving rain Tuesday to reject the concept of zoning in a special city council election.
With a turnout of 42 percent, voters chose anti-zoning candidates Chuck Wheeler and Billy Kitchens form a field of seven to serve terms for the rest of the year.

New Sewer Line Route Crosses Land Of Chairman's Wife
The wife of the chairman of the Jackson County Water and Sewerage Authority could find her property more valuable after the authority voted to reroute a controversial sewer line across her land.

County Movers And Shakers
To Brainstorm Over FutureJackson County's top leaders will gather in May to brainstorm over the county's future.

Developer fined for violation of soil ordinance. A Jackson County developer has been fined for violating the county soil erosion ordinance.

County seeks citizens to serve on dangerous dog control board
County manager Skip Nalley is seeking names of countians to serve on a board to hear dangerous dog complaints.



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TUESDAY NIGHT CROWD


A crowd of approximately 300 people packed the high school media center Tuesday night to show support for Mac Almond, who resigned as Comer Elementary School principal this past week.




Mac Almond resignsBOE releases allegations against former principal
Mac Almond has resigned as principal of Comer Elementary School, a post he held for the past 26 years.
The Madison County school board accepted his resignation Monday and on Tuesday school board attorney Lane Fitzpatrick released approximately 150 pages of evidence to support allegations that Almond has shown a "pattern...of personal abuse of school funds," that he has disposed of evidence that might incriminate him, that he has falsified leave records for himself and teachers and that frequent absences left him unable to perform his duties.
Almond did not return a call to his home Tuesday, but his attorney, Ed Tolley of Athens, faxed a letter from Almond in which the former principal denied the allegations (see box for full letter).
The board has not voted on any action beyond accepting the resignation. A discipline hearing scheduled for March 28 has been called off in light of the resignation.
The most notable charge is that Almond had former central office secretary Carlene Fields, who was fired Feb. 28, use a stamp of interim superintendent Allen McCannon's signature for unauthorized salary supplements for Almond and other Comer staff members.
"Mr. Almond sent a memo to a former payroll clerk about the Gholston Fund reimbursement," wrote Fitzpatrick, summarizing the investigation to the BOE. "Without authorization, a former payroll clerk in the central office used Mr. McCannon's signature stamp to approve monthly salary supplement schedules during this school year....The investigation has confirmed by three sources that this same former payroll clerk has her tanning bed bill paid by Mr. Almond."
The September memo from Almond to Fields regarding the Gholston Trust supplements states that he was to receive an $11,000 "supplement for principal." Two other employees were also to receive $1,500 from the Gholston Trust for "supplement for technology" and "supplement for staff development."
Almond wrote McCannon Feb. 27 to explain the supplements.
"Since 1973, the Gholston Estate has provided funds for Comer Elementary," wrote Almond. "And every year since 1973, usually in March, the Comer Elementary principal submits a budget (salaries, supplements) for the next school year to the Gholston Estate for review, modification, approval. The principal of Comer Elementary then shares this with the superintendent of schools. This has been the method of operation with Mr. James Means, Mr. Jim Perkins and myself."
Fields wrote a letter to the editor this week (see page 10A) in which she declared that she had acted appropriately and was wrongly fired by McCannon.
According to Fitzpatrick's report to the BOE, the investigation of Almond continued through March 16. Twenty people were interviewed and 3,385 documents were reviewed.
The report concludes that "since June 5, 1999 Mr. Almond has written himself reimbursement checks totaling $11,675.52."
McCannon wrote Almond March 9 to explain his suspension of the principal. Among the reasons given were that Almond's "excessive reimbursements for this school year indicate a pattern of your (Almond's) personal abuse of school funds."
"Sales receipts provided by (Almond) indicate (Almond) purchased items...for personal use with school funds," wrote McCannon.
A large portion of the approximately 150 pages of evidence against Almond concerns reimbursements to the former principal. The report says Almond wrote himself $6,175.95 in checks during the 1999-2000 school year, with no receipts to back up any checks.
Fitzpatrick wrote that in addition to these checks, records turned over by Almond reveal other reimbursement checks written by Almond to himself of $1,588 (June 5, 1999), $1,806 (Aug. 14, 2000), $1,197 (Nov. 14, 2000) and $908 (Jan. 16, 2001). Receipts were turned in to back up these checks.
The receipts reveal that the reimbursements are for a variety of items - school supplies, movies, books, cleaning equipment, candy, garbage disposal fees.
McCannon wrote that a school janitor would testify that he "does not remember using many of the cleaning and hardware supplies for which (Almond) submitted receipts."
The investigation report also states that a receipt from Sam's Club dated Nov. 25, 2000, was for the purchase of four scooters and a utility bike. Another Sam's Club receipt dated Dec. 19, 2000, includes a fifth scooter.
"The investigation revealed four scooters were in the building for Christmas prizes," wrote Fitzpatrick. "No bike was on campus until the first interviews (in the Almond investigation) were conducted on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2001. A bicycle appeared in the building some time after Feb. 28, 2001. The bike has been used."
The report also states that two vacuum cleaners Almond received reimbursement for - one purchased in 1998 and another in July of 2000 - appeared in the building "some time after the first interviews were conducted on Wednesday, Feb. 28."
A copy of a check written to "petty cash" by Almond for $300 is also included in the investigation packet. McCannon said in his letter to Almond that there is no "petty cash" account at Comer Elementary and that another school employee would testify to that fact.
The packet includes a letter to auditors written by Almond sometime after May 10, 1999, in which the principal explained how he views reimbursements.
"Our school has private funding and part of the funding is for school supplies and materials," wrote Almond. "However, because the private trust fund receives their income from investments, the amount of funding to our school for a supply fund can vary from year to year. As principal, I would purchase items for school and would hold the receipt until the end of the school year to ensure that funds from the private trust would be available for reimbursement. If funds were not available, I would of course not ask for reimbursement."
Fitzpatrick's report and McCannon's letter to Almond regarding his suspension also suggest that Almond was not cooperative in assisting in their inquiries about school finances.
According to Fitzpatrick's report, McCannon and assistant superintendent Jimmy Minish went to Comer Elementary School on Friday, Feb. 23, and requested the school's financial records for the past 10 years.
Almond turned over 18 items on that day and seven documents March 7, but many financial records were unaccounted for. And Almond said records had been discarded during renovations.
"In his conversation with Mr. McCannon...Mr. Almond stated custodian Michael Simmons accidentally threw away financial records when carpet was installed during the summer of 1998," wrote Fitzpatrick. "An inspection of the vault reveals it is not carpeted....In an interview with Mr. McCannon, Mr. Simmons denied he threw away any records."
The allegations also indicate that Almond threw away financial records and billed the county for the expense of disposing of the records.
"Receipts you submitted show that during the summer you claim the financial records were accidentally thrown away, you threw away school records at the Madison County Transfer Station," McCannon wrote to Almond. "Receipts you submitted show that you have thrown away school property without authorization."
Almond sent a letter to McCannon on March 6, saying that he could not locate financial records from last year.
"I have not been able to locate the financial records from last year," wrote Almond. "They were stored in the school vault with the 98-99 records. I can only assume they are missing since many people have access to the vault."
According to the investigation report, when asked about the whereabouts of the 1999-2000 records, another Comer employee stated that she had "seen those records in the vault in the fall of 2000."
According to the report, floppy disks containing financial information were missing, as well as financial records kept in filing cabinets.
Also, the report states that after McCannon interviewed custodian Simmons, "Mr. Almond instructed Mr. Simmons to take filing and other cabinets to Mr. Almond's home."
"Mr. McCannon learned of this instruction and countermanded it," Fitzpatrick wrote.
McCannon's letter to Almond also states that the school has a history of bad financial management. He wrote that audits show that Comer was over budget in fiscal years 81, 82, 91, 93, 95, 97 and 2000.
He wrote that the school bookkeeper will testify that "before she was assigned the duty of keeping books, creditors called the school because of past due bills."
The report also states that $2,630 was spent on Cokes and snacks for the teachers' lounge in 1999-2000. But only $1,020 was deposited for the sale of items in the lounge for the year.
McCannon wrote that four employees of Merchants and Farmers Bank will testify that Almond would bring quarters into the bank to exchange for cash.
The interim superintendent wrote that a bank employee said that Almond asked tellers to cash checks made out to "Comer Elementary." The bank employee said that Almond on occasion sent red velvet cakes to bank employees "until the bank ceased cashing checks" for Almond made out to the school. McCannon also wrote that a woman would testify that Almond often purchased red velvet cakes from her using a Comer Elementary check.
McCannon wrote that Almond submitted a request to attend a conference in Macon, which cost the school district $150, but did not attend the conference. McCannon wrote that four county principals would testify that Almond was not at the conference.
McCannon wrote that a Comer school employee would testify that Almond falsified his sick leave and personal leave and instructed the employee to "falsify teachers' sick leave."
The interim superintendent also wrote that Almond frequently missed school and could not properly carry out his duties.
"Because of your frequent absences from Comer Elementary School, you are neglecting your duties as the leader of Comer Elementary," wrote McCannon to Almond.
Fitzpatrick said that several copies of the approximately 150-page investigation packet have been made. The documents are public record - government agencies may charge up to 25 cents per copy for records. The first 10 pages summarize the allegations against Almond with the remaining documents supporting those allegations. Contact the school board office at 795-2191 for more information.







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ALMOND SPEAKS
"After nearly 30 years of service to the Madison County School District, I have this date tendered my resignation from employment with the district. Given the allegations which have been made against me by the acting superintendent of schools, it is obvious to me that I can no longer successfully function as an employee of the Madison County Board of Education or as the principal of Comer Elementary School. While I have denied the allegations, nevertheless, it also became apparent to me, despite the best efforts of those who have supported me, that I would not be retained by the school district.
"I want to thank each and every teacher who has worked for me, the parents who have supported me and the many young people whom I have had the privilege to educate and supervise over these many years. I will greatly miss the faculty and other school employees, the children and the parents at Comer Elementary School.
"My present plans are to retire and seek alternative employment. Again, I want to thank all those who have supported me, and I trust they will understand that I have made a decision which I think is in the best interest of all concerned."
- Robert "Mac" Almond


We back Mac!
Large crowd shows support for long-time Comer principal

At least 300 Comer parents packed the Madison County High School library Tuesday night to support suspended Comer Elementary School principal Mac Almond. The popular educator has resigned following charges including incompetence, insubordination and willful neglect. Wearing T-shirts declaring "We Back Mac," the protesters presented speaker after speaker who testified to the love and respect the parents, teachers and students of Comer Elementary feel for their principal.
Beth M. Scott-Brown accused the board of failing to properly inform parents of the action.
"A simple note to (parents) would have eliminated misunderstandings," she said. She insisted that parents have a right to know what is going on in their school.
Scott-Brown also questioned the timing of the action. She told the board that the suspension two weeks before a major test was not in the best interest of children or faculty. She closed by reminding the board that "you were elected to represent us."
Patty Irvin described the love the children have for Mac Almond. She told of his efforts to encourage each child, noting that he knew each of them by name.
Retired teacher Margaret Burroughs reminded the board that she had taught each of them along with acting superintendent Allen McCannon and board attorney Lane Fitzpatrick.
"I loved you then and I love you now, no matter how this comes out," she said. She then described her family's lengthy relationship with Mr. Almond, concluding that Mac Almond's heart is with Comer Elementary."
Anne Burroughs questioned the style of interrogation, suggesting that county officials had engaged in "zealous prosecution designed to intimidate." She challenged the board to consider the timing of the investigation, whether Mr. Almond was given due process and whether uniform policy was being applied.
Doug Wood said that the children of Comer were devastated by the action.
Janice Gilley described her arrival at Comer Elementary in the third grade. "Mac took me under his wing and made me feel like I belonged," she said.
"My kids think he is the greatest, and I agree," she said. "He always went above and beyond his duties."
Don Mosley of Jubilee Partners reported a conversation he had with Mr. Almond.
"I asked him if the board offered him an opportunity to finish out the school year how would he respond."
"In a heartbeat," was his answer. Mosley urged the board to allow Almond to complete the school year then begin a careful search for an "equally caring replacement."
After her daughter Chancie reminded the board that "we all make mistakes," Anita Cochran presented a petition containing 550 signatures asking that Almond be reinstated.
Leah Mattison, Comer school counselor, told the board that many students are confused and upset by Almond's absence.
Jena Smith rushed back from an out-of-state trip to support Almond. She described her arrival in Comer two years ago and the way Almond welcomed her children and made them comfortable in their new school. She questioned the lack of communication between the board and parents.
"I do not feel like I am part of the school," she said.
The audience demanded that the board reconsider the action against Almond. They asked when the board would have another meeting to consider their requests. BOC chairman Robert Haggard responded that Mr. Almond's resignation puts an end to the matter and no further action was expected. The audience objected to this, insisting that their concerns be addressed. The board did not respond. When the audience pressed for answers, Fitzpatrick said that he had instructed the board not to answer questions for legal reasons. Haggard told the audience that if they set up a meeting of their own, he would come to answer what questions he could.
At one point, members of the audience displayed their anger and sheriff's deputies quietly walked among the crowd to cool tempers.
After the meeting, the Comer PTO officials decided to call a special meeting on Monday, March 26, at 7 p.m. in the Lions Club building.
Margaret Burroughs cautioned the group to be "very careful."
"The (the Board of Education) are doing what they think is right, and we are doing what we think is right," Burroughs said.