Jackson County's three school systems are planning to return to in-person classes in the coming weeks despite a surge in state and local virus cases.
The City of Jefferson School System plans to return to class on July 31, followed by the City of Commerce School System on Aug. 7 and the Jackson County School System on Aug. 12.
While those are the current plans, they could change as the virus continues to dog the nation. Getting children back into regular school classrooms has been a top priority for President Donald Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
None of the three local systems will mandate students wear a mask, but leaders in the systems say masks will be encouraged. The Gwinnett County School System is mandating that students wear masks in school buildings.
All three local systems will also offer on-line classes for students who don't wish to return to regular in-person instruction.
The state revised its guidelines for reopening schools earlier this week to focus less on community spread of the virus and more on dealing with the virus within school facilities.
(See other stories about local school reopenings elsewhere in this issue.)
Early voting for the Aug. 11 runoff elections begins soon in Jackson County.
In-person early voting will be open at the Gordon Street Center in Jefferson from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. beginning Monday, July 20.
Election day in-person voting will take place at the county's four voting precincts on Aug. 11.
For those not wanting to vote i-person, absentee ballots may be requested at the Jackson County Elections Office, from the county's webpage, or from the state voting webpage at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.
Those who voted in the Democratic or Republican General Primary (in June) will have to stick with the same party's ballot they voted earlier.
Those who didn't vote in the June primary, or who only voted a non-partisan ticket, can choose which party's ballot they wish to vote.
All voters in the county will be able to vote in the runoff elections for the 9th Congressional District.
On the Republican ticket, Jacksonian Countian Andrew Clyde faces Matt Gurtler in the runoff. On the Democratic ticket, Devin Pandy faces Brooke Siskin for the nomination.
The winner of each primary runoff will face-off in November's General Election.
Voters living in the northern and central part of Jackson County in the 50th State Senate District will be able to vote on the Republican ticket runoff between Stacy Hall and Bo Hatchett. Both men are from Habersham County. The 50th Senate District covers a large swath of Northeast Georgia.
Voters in West Jackson who live in the Post 1 District for the Jackson County Board of Education will be able to vote in the Republican runoff between Ron Johnson and Rick Sanders. No Democrat is vying for that seat. The winner will replace incumbent board member Michael Cronic, who is retiring.
Sample ballots are available at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov or on the county webpage.
Both Jackson County and East Jackson comprehensive high schools will move forward with graduation ceremony plans as the state remains under a public health emergency with COVID-19.
Jackson County seniors are set to graduate Friday, July 17 at 8 p.m., while East Jackson’s seniors will graduate Saturday, July 18 at 8 a.m.
Both schools will to adhere social distancing requirements for gatherings of greater than 50 people under the state’s public health emergency. The schools will also provide masks for those in attendance.
Jackson County principal Jason Wester said spacing will be marked at Panther Stadium to separate family groups by six feet.
Wester said he believes the school can allot eight tickets per graduate and still maintain proper distancing. Graduates will also be separated by six feet on the stadium grass. Staff participating in graduation will be limited “to just the necessary folks,” according to Wester.
About 160 Jackson County seniors will participate in graduation ceremonies.
“We’re very confident that we can put this on in a way that will be as safe as possible for our students and their families,” Wester said.
Meanwhile, East Jackson, which expects 198 seniors to participate, can provide six tickets per graduate and still maintain proper social distancing.
Like Jackson County, East Jackson will enforce required distancing between families in the stadium and provide masks for everyone to wear.
“We just plan to get these students graduated and to celebrate with them,” East Jackson principal Chanda Palmer said. “We’re very excited about it.”
Discussions between the county's three school systems over how to divide funds from the SK Battery plant in Commerce have not been resolved, according to Commerce superintendent Joy Tolbert.
During a budget discussion at the Commerce Board of Education meeting July 13, Tolbert said she had informed the Jefferson City and Jackson County School Systems that Commerce isn't interested in a revision of an existing shared tax agreement for the property where SK is being built.
Tolbert also again outlined to the board that the Commerce School System will be hurt financially from the deal the county made with SK. Rather than paying regular property taxes, SK will make "payments in lieu of taxes" (PILOT) on a sliding scale over the next 20 years. But since the huge value of SK will be added to the city's tax digest, Commerce will, on paper, become a "wealthy" school system. Because of that, it will lose some state funding it has been receiving.
The PILOT payments won't be enough to offset that loss. Tolbert said that around the year 2025, the system will need extra funding to make up for that loss in state money. Between now and then, the system will bank the SK PILOT payments so it will have those funds on hand when needed, she said.
Meanwhile, exactly how the PILOT payments will be split between the school systems remains unclear. Commerce received its first SK payment in may for $260,000, Tolbert said. Next May, that amount should be around $1 million.
Also on July 13, the BOE reviewed a draft of its FY2021 budget. The budget projects the system will have to use some of its reserves to make ends meet.
The board will have hearings on the budget on July 27 and Aug. 10 with final action expected on Aug. 10.
Local taxes will make up $3.4 million of the proposed $15.6 million budget. The millage rate has not been set yet pending a final tax digest in the fall.
Quality Basic Education (QBE) funds are estimated to bring in close to $11.5 million in revenue in FY2021. ELOST is estimated to account for at least $1.3 million and the state's equalization grant is estimated to bring in $1.8 million in revenue.
Transportation, school food services, nursing, and state and federal programs account for the remaining operating revenue for the 2021 fiscal year.
The bulk of the expenses for FY2021 is attributed to instructional cost associated with salaries for teachers, paraprofessionals and instructional material with a proposed budget of approximately $11 million.
Expenses for school and general administration, including salaries for principals, assistant principals, clerical employees, board members, superintendent, bus drivers and related expenses, account for $1.8 million.
Pupil services, including athletic supplements, nurses, travel, supplies and computer equipment will total an estimated $737,000 and maintenance and operation expenses make up $1.4 million.
The proposed budget will include five less days on the amended calendar for employee work days.
The Jackson County Board of Education approved a $86.1 million budget for spending in 2020-21 that will require the system to dip into its reserves.
The tentative budget, which calls for a two percent increase over last year’s budget, passed with a unanimous vote at the BOE's July 13 meeting.
The system is being cut an approximate $4.66 million dollars in state funds due to the economic slowdown brought on by COVID-19, so it will have to use $2 million from reserves during the coming year. The system ended the FY2020 fiscal year with $17.8 million in reserves.
The proposed budget asks for $35.9 million in local property taxes, up $1.71 million from 2019-20.
The tentative spending plan includes a millage rate of 18.655, which remains unchanged from last year. The final millage rate won't be set until later in the fall after the county's tax digest is determined.
SCHOLARSHIP NAMED FOR WARD
In other business, the BOE ageed tol name a scholarship award for East Jackson students in honor of former school system employee, former BOE member and community leader Margaret Ward.
Ward recently passed away at age 89. she was the first female board member on the Jackson County BOE. She served the school system for 40 years.
“If you want to talk about a true servant, that was Ms. Ward,” Jackson County superintendent April Howard said.
“She dedicated her life to students, she really, really did,” BOE chairman Lynne Wheeler added. “We will miss her and her spirit.”
In other business, the BOE approved:
• the strategic waiver school system amendments for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.
• teacher salary schedules, which were unchanged from last year, and a non-teaching salary schedule with minimal changes. Supplement schedules were reviewed as well.
• 2020-21 supplement schedules.
• surplus items for sale.
• a revision of graduation requirements.
• its 2020-21 training plan.
• a retirement incentive agreement for Jan NeSmith.
• the system’s Excellence and Service Award to the teaching and learning department for its efforts in making remote and distance learning available during the suspension of in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The explosion in Georgia of new COVID virus cases and deaths is hitting Jackson County too.
Deaths in Jackson have climbed to 12 with 62 hospitalizations and 531 positive cases as of July 13.
In Commerce, Northridge Health and Rehabilitation has recorded eight deaths. The center has also had 62 residents test positive for the virus along with 17 staff members testing positive.
Statewide, deaths have surpassed the 3,000 mark with 117,000 confirmed cases.
Following a downturn in the number of cases and deaths in May and June in the state, over the last two weeks, the case count and hospitalizations has gone up dramatically.
In response, state officials are encouraging people to wear a mask in public. Gov. Brian Kemp has also extended the state of emergency in Georgia.
The state is also reopening a makeshift hospital at the World Congress Center in Atlanta.
Some school systems, including the Jackson County and Commerce systems, have postponed the start of school because of the virus resurgence.
A Democratic candidate for the 9th Congressional District, which includes Jackson County, reportedly spent the weekend in a Gwinnett County jail.
According to the Gwinnett Daily Post, Brooke Siskin was jailed on contempt of court charges for not having turned in her gun and ammunition to authorities as previously ordered. Siskin is reportedly in a divorce dispute with her ex-husband and has a protective order against her.
Siskin was reportedly arrested in March on criminal trespass and disorderly conduct charges at a bank in Gwinnett County, according to the Post.
Siskin faces Devin Pandy for the Democratic nomination to the 9th Congressional District in the Aug. 11 runoff.