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Three plans presented for Barrow schools' reopening

With the traditional start of the school year just a month and a half away, the Barrow County School System has unveiled three tentative scenarios to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

County school leaders presented these three options during the Barrow County Board of Education’s June 16 video-conferencing meeting.

“We will have school in one shape or form,” superintendent Chris McMichael said.

But McMichael said the system’s goal is to start school on Aug. 4 with students on-site.

“We want to get our students and staff back on time and on campus,” he said. “We all know that’s where the best learning goes on. That’s where our kids are comfortable.”

Whatever option school leaders decide upon, however, will be based upon how the system is identified by the Department of Health for its risk level for COVID-19 spread. Systems will fit into one of three categories: low or no spread, minimal or moderate spread, or substantial spread.

McMichael speculates that Barrow County Schools could fall into either the low-spread or minimal or moderate spread category. He expects that news later in the week.

The reopening plans, which come after school buildings were shuttered back in mid-March in response to the coronavirus outbreak, were presented in order of most ideal to least.

Here is each option:

OPTION 1

Option 1, which coincides with a low or no spread designation, has students and staff returning to campuses on Aug. 4. Safety precautions against the spread of COVID-19 would be incorporated into that plan. Remote learning would be made available for students who might have health risks or simply prefer remote learning. The remote-learning option could allow for in-person classes to be live streamed for students to remotely access them. McMichael said provisions could be made for students with health risks who would prefer to learn remotely but lack digital access.

OPTION 2

Option 2, which would be used with a minimal or moderate spread designation, is the most varied.

It, too, has students and teachers returning to campuses but with a delayed start. Like Option 1, preventative measures against COVID-19 would be implemented with a remote-learning option available as well.

But within Option 2 are hybrid scenarios.

One scenario divides the student population into an "A-B" group rotation. These groups would determine on-campus days for each individual student. Under this hybrid plan, students would begin school on Aug. 4.

McMichael said this scenario is “probably the most difficult in many ways,” pointing to the logistics of bus schedules and providing lunches, among other issues, for different groups of students. 

Another hybrid scenario is to implement the A-B campus rotation for K-8 only and restrict grades 9-12 to remote learning. This scenario also has an Aug. 4 start date.

Another scenario is a staggered return to school by level (elementary, middle and high school).

Under Option 2, students with digital-access needs would receive prioritized on-campus access.

OPTION 3

Option 3, labeled as the least ideal and reserved for a substantial spread designation, would have students starting school on Aug. 4 with remote learning.

MOVING FORWARD

The school system will release a more definitive plan on July 6 for reopening, along with specific protocols for safety precautions. School leaders will ask parents to notify them between the dates of July 8-Aug. 17 if they prefer remote learning for their student.

The system is planning to hold pre-planning and open houses in July in advance of the targeted Aug. 4 re-opening date.

District 9 at-large board member Stephanie Bramlett asked about social-distancing guidelines upon reopening, pointing to school buses specifically. McMichael said there are “no clear answers yet” to those questions, but social-distancing guidelines, though practiced when possible, are not mandated.

McMichael pointed to a new normal for school systems.

“School is going to be different,” McMichael said. “Even starting back on Aug. 4 and running the calendar that we expect, things are just going to be different. The precautions that are going to have to take place, the flow of instruction … I told the principals and some of the staff the other day in one of our Zoom meetings that at this point it may be time to morn a little bit of the past was, and now it’s time to shake it off and move forward and make the best out of what we’re going to do to move forward.”

TENTATIVE SCHOOL MILLAGE RATE APPROVED

The school board approved a tentative millage rate of 18.5 mills, maintaining a rate the system has held since 2007. With that rate, the district anticipates $42.8 million in property-tax revenue for FY2021.

The board opted not to roll back its rate to 18.095 mills, which would have generated the same amount of tax money as the previous year on property that was on the 2019 digest (excluding new exemptions).

Because it opted against a roll back, the board must hold three public hearings. Those hearings are set for 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. July 1 and 1 p.m. July 9.

The board will adopt the millage rate in a called meeting July 13 to present to the board of commissioners for a final vote at its July 14 meeting.

PROJECTS DISCUSSED

A guaranteed maximum price of $8 million for a SPLOST-funded addition to Westside Middle School was presented to the board to consider.

The school system, the project architect (Smallwood Reynolds Stewart and Stewart) and construction manager (Charles Black Construction) began collaborating during the winter develop drawings and a budget.

The system expects to receive $1.5 million in state capital outlay funds for this project.

The school board also considered a recommendation to use the firm of Cunningham, Forehand, Matthews and Moore to perform design work for renovations to the Auburn Elementary School, Holsenbeck Elementary School and Apalachee High School campuses. The firm has done design work for the school system previously. Renovation work at those school sites will include new finishes, lights, classroom cameras and brick and mortar security vestibules.

The system will apply for state capital outlay funding for this project.

BOARD ADDRESSES MISSED LUNCH PAYMENTS

The school board discussed implementing policies to address lunch-payment delinquency and encourage parents to fill out free and reduced lunch forms.

The council’s school-lunch committed presented the following recommendations:

•replacement of old school-payment software.

•changing school lunch payment policies to clarify that charging meals is not allowed.

•implementing a daily call system to notify parents of lunch non-payment.

•notifying school social workers for repeated non-payments for lunch.

•requesting month-to-month reports to chart each school’s progress for lunch collections.

•monthly awards for schools demonstrating best nutritional practices, including meal-payment collections.

•ensuring that communication to parents is consistent across schools and that those communicating with parents are properly trained.

The board stressed that a student will not be denied meals if they’re unable to pay, but said these measures are to hold parents accountable.

“If parents can’t afford lunch, that’s fine. Fill out the form,” chairperson Lynn Stevens said, referring to free and reduced lunch forms. “If you can afford lunch, send the money. We need a way that these parents can prepay their kids' lunches so that this shouldn’t even be an issue.”

Stevens added that these measures hold the school system accountable, too.

“For years, we have just let these accounts build up and build up and then we get to the end of the year, and it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, we’ve got $18,000 that we haven’t collected' or $21,000 or whatever,” she said.

OTHER BUSINESS

In other business, the BOE:

•heard that $41,740 worth of state capital outlay funds are due back to the school system after closing out its Yargo Elementary School renovation project. The project was completed in the summer of 2019 and all payments have now been made.

•reviewed various low bids for brake shoe and drums, which would amount to a yearly cost of $62,000.

•reviewed W.W. Williams’ low bid of $45,545 for three remanufactured engines for three older buses.

•reviewed Peach State Freightliner’s low bid for bus batteries, which would amount to an estimated yearly expense of $35,000.

•reviewed Athens Commercial Tire’s low bid for bus tires, which would equate to an estimated expense of $140,000 yearly.

•reviewed Connor Automotive’s low bid of $87,000 for service of the system’s 81-vehicle white fleet, which includes maintenance trucks and vans and vehicles used by various departments.

•reviewed Alpha Communications’ low bid of $23,000 for radio service, as well as video and camera equipment for buses.

•reviewed the low bids of four companies for musical instruments for Barrow Arts and Sciences Academy. The lowest bid per each instrument was selected. The aggregate price is $86,649, which would be covered through ESPOST funds.

•discussed receiving proposals to refund the school system’s 2014 bonds, which are currently at 2.55 percent. The move could produce savings in the system’s ELOST funds.


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Winder panel opposes annexation request for large subdivision

A developer’s plans to build a large residential subdivision to the south of Atlanta Highway and west of Pine Hills Golf Course was dealt a setback Tuesday, June 16, when the majority of a Winder panel opposed annexing the land into the city.

The city’s planning board voted 4-2 to recommend denial of Sullins Engineering’s request to annex and rezone seven parcels totaling more than 200 acres between Atlanta Highway, the golf course and Russell Cemetery Road, to the east of the Lighthouse Estates subdivision. The developer has plans to use five of the parcels — totaling more than 160 acres — to build a 387-lot single-family subdivision, referred to in the plans as Fieldstream. According to the plans, the subdivision would be developed in four phases with the first phase including 110 lots bordering the highway and golf course. A swimming pool area would also be included in the development.

The other two parcels — totaling roughly 43 acres along Atlanta Highway — would be used for “light industrial” businesses, according to the plans.

The main concerns among most planning board members Tuesday — the vote on Taffy McCormick’s motion to recommend denial was 4-2 with Russell Shepley and David Brock opposed — centered around the overall size and scope of the proposed development.

The request now heads to the city council for a final decision. The council is scheduled to consider the request at a July 6 work session and vote during its July 7 voting session.

The applicants had sought the annexation into the city to allow for the development of more homes — more than three times what is currently allowed under the land’s Barrow County zoning. While actual development plans would still have to go through the city vetting and approval process, the annexation and rezoning into the city’s Single Family High Density Residential Zone would help the applicants because their number of proposed lots would fall within the allowed density in that particular zone, Matt Sullins of Sullins Engineering said.

“We want to make the city bigger and build some nice homes,” said Bruce Russell, a Clayton attorney and relative of the Russell family that owns a portion of the land around the cemetery where the late Georgia governor, U.S. senator and Winder native Richard Russell (Bruce Russell’s uncle) is buried. Roughly 32 acres that are part of the request are owned by the Dr. Alex B. Russell Estate. Jim Russell, Bruce Russell’s cousin, said he did not object to the development as long as protective fencing was put up along the family cemetery property.

CONCERNS

The proposal received pushback from Barrow County officials at a county board of commissioners meeting June 9 over the potential impact of traffic in the area and other concerns. The city’s planning staff also recommended against the annexation and McCormick echoed those concerns in her motion.

Barrow County schools superintendent Chris McMichael also wrote a letter to the city and county saying the development would place financial burdens on the school system for educating children and would present bus transportation issues as well. In the letter, school officials projected a total of 399 children in the development at full buildout and estimated property taxes would only cover a little more than half of the projected $1.2 million to educate those children.

While Russell said the homes would be marketed at between $200,000 and $300,000, Jennifer Houston, assistant superintendent for business services and chief finance officer for the school system, said the city should be considering developments with less but larger, higher-valued homes that would boost the county’s property-tax base.

“The land in Barrow County is precious. The amount of vacant land is decreasing and the student population is increasing so every dollar will be stretched,” Houston said. “We’ve been a community of starter homes. There’s nothing wrong with starter homes but we just want to see some more “next step up” homes that seem to be being built more in surrounding counties.”

But Russell pushed back on the characterization of the proposed homes as “starter homes,” saying the characterization “borders on hypocrisy.”

“I would submit (the price range) is good, comfortable housing. This is going to be a nice neighborhood,” Russell said, also addressing the traffic and other concerns. He added the only two entrances to the neighborhood would be off Atlanta Highway and Golf Course Road to the south and that there would not be an access off the narrow Russell Cemetery Road.

“When I developed (a nearby subdivision), there was every prediction of calamity, none of which occurred,” Russell said. “This is a high-density development and would have some impact, no doubt. But it’s better off for (neighboring properties) to have a lot of neighbors that might impact you a little bit as opposed to one or two neighbors that might come in and destroy you.”

When asked by McCormick why larger homes weren’t considered for the development, Russell said the proposed development would follow the market rate in the nearby area.

“You can’t build a $500,000 home in a $200,000 home neighborhood,” he said.

Shepley said he did not agree with all of aspects of the proposal but opposed McCormick’s motion, saying he would support granting the request with some modifications and conditions.

The vote to deny the request for the two industrial parcels, which Russell said would likely include commercial development suitable for the subdivision such as storage units, was along the same 4-2 line.

City planning director Barry Edgar said denying the rezoning for the residential development but approving the commercial parcels would create an unincorporated island, which would not be allowed under state law. That concern was among those voiced by county officials last week.


News
County commissioners to resume in-person meetings Tuesday

The Barrow County Board of Commissioners will resume allowing public in-person attendance of its meetings starting next week and will begin holding monthly work sessions again in addition to the monthly voting sessions.

The board has two meetings scheduled for Tuesday, June 23 — a 5 p.m. work session and a 6 p.m. called meeting, during which the board is scheduled to have a final vote on the county’s proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget.

The board, which switched its twice-monthly meeting format last year to one work session and one voting session, temporarily suspended work sessions in March amid the coronavirus pandemic and has been conducting its voting sessions via Zoom, allowing the public to view the meetings on the county’s website and Facebook page.

Tuesday’s meetings will take place in the BOC’s meeting chambers on the second floor of the Historic Barrow County Courthouse at 30 North Broad St., Winder. The meetings will be open to the public but social distancing guidelines will be enforced.

The meetings will also be available to the public on the county’s website at barrowga.org. Some commissioners will be attending the meeting personally while others will be participating via Zoom, according to a meeting notice.

Full agendas and packets for the meetings are scheduled to be posted to the county’s website by Friday, June 19.


News
Winder council approves hiring of new administrator

The Winder City Council made the hiring of Mandi Cody as the new city administrator official last week, unanimously approving an employment agreement with her during a called meeting Thursday, June 11.

Cody, who has been the interim city administrator in Washington since December and was city manager of Metter for three years prior to that, was slated to start work with the city Thursday, June 18, Mayor David Maynard said last week. She will earn an annual base salary of $137,000 under the initial two-year agreement, which runs through June 2022 and will be set to automatically renew for 12-month terms after that.

Cody replaces former Winder administrator Donald Toms, who resigned in February. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Georgia Southern University and a law degree from Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law. She practiced law for three years prior to her time in local government. She has been town administrator for the Town of Register in Bulloch County, a city planner and later director of planning and economic development for the City of Statesboro. She was Metter’s city administrator from 2016-2019. She resigned in July following lengthy service-delivery strategy negotiations with Candler County, and media reports in the area indicated the resignation was due to differences between her and council members. During her time as interim administrator in Washington, she has been assisting the city in SDS negotiations.

Cody, who was also a finalist for county administrator in Crisp County last fall and was also a finalist for the top administrative post in Georgetown County, S.C., earlier this year, emerged as one of three finalists for the vacant Winder position last month. After Toms’ resignation, a search committee consisting of Maynard and councilmen Sonny Morris and Chris Akins received 13 applications and narrowed that set down to six candidates who participated in phone interviews with the mayor, the two councilmen and city department heads.

From there, the field was whittled down to three finalists — Cody, Eric Taylor of Atlanta and Jay Johnson of Gulf Shores, Ala. — who were interviewed individually by the full council in closed session last month.

Maynard said after the interviews a consensus among the council formed around Cody.

“All three people we were interviewed were extremely competent and I would not have heartburn about working with any of them,” Maynard said. “Mandi just won the council over. She has a lot of energy and a lot of tools that I think are going to help us.”

“We had three good candidates; we really did,” councilman Jimmy Terrell added. “I didn’t have a real first choice going in, but after the interviews and meetings, I think we were all impressed with Mandi and the progression of her career as well. She brings to the table some attributes that I think we need — her experience in city administration, as an attorney, in economic development. I just think we made a wise choice.”

Councilwoman Holly Sheats agreed the decision on the hire was a difficult one but that Cody’s background was most suitable “for where we are as a city and need at this time.”

“She has a lot of energy. She’s at a point where her desire for professional growth will match up well with the issues we’re facing right now and where I think we need the most input and help,” Sheats said. “It was an enlightening process. I think we as a council all agreed that we learned something from each person we interviewed and that they all had a lot to offer.

“It just boiled down to her being the best fit, and I think it’s going to a be fresh start and fresh, new perspective for us. I feel very positive about it.”


Correction

A man pictured in a photo that ran with a story about a protest in Winder on June 7 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in last week's edition was incorrectly identified as a Winder-Barrow High School football teacher and coach.

The News-Journal regrets the error.