HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Board of Education (BOE) approved multiple staff additions for Towns County Schools at their regular work session on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018.
The individuals were accepted as follows:
Middle School Basketball Cheerleading Coach – Sara Ewing
Middle School Baseball Assistant Community Coach – Zeke Gribble
Custodian – Windy Thompson
Fundraisers for the Elementary School Council, Middle and High School Basketball teams, and a Middle School trip to New York were approved by the Board. In addition, a third grade field trip to the smokey Mountain Theatre in Franklin, NC, was authorized for Oct. 18, and a High School Journalism class trip to the University of Georgia Tate Center was accepted.
Financial Director Myra Underwood delivered the financial statement, including an increase of $120,000 in the General Fund, according to the Department of Education’s final report which ended in June, 2018. The figure amounts to six percent under budget for the previous fiscal year.
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Winter weather can be difficult to predict in the Georgia mountains, and travel can be dangerous in the event of substantial snowfall or icy roadways. Towns County Schools plans to implement Online Learning Days should inclement weather force students to miss on-campus classes during the winter quarter.
Due to a late start to the 2018-2019 school year, the result of campus renovation, the school calender is on a tight schedule. In order to ensure that the school year wraps-up on May 24, 2019, as planned, Towns County Schools Superintendent Dr.Darren Berrong has decided that Online Learning Days is a creative way to keep the student schedule on track.
Students will be able to access assignments from home through Google Classroom, a program that teachers were trained to use during the pre-planning process. Teachers will post office hours within Google Classroom, communicating with students as needed.
Alternate assignments can be requested by parents and students without home internet access. Likewise, after school labs will be offered to students that lack internet access for one week after the Online Learning Day to provide an opportunity to complete lessons. Parents are encouraged to begin communication with their child’s teacher as to whether home internet access is available in order to suit the needs of the individual student.
The school system explains that while nothing can replace on-campus classes, Online Learning Days are an appropriate alternative because the student calender is fixed, as additional campus renovation is planned to begin once the school year ends on May 24. While many school systems regularly utilize Online Learning Days, Towns County Schools says it is a fresh endeavor that they will strive to improve over time.
Specific information regarding Online Learning Days will be sent to parents from each school. Opportunities to provide feedback will be encouraged once the plan ensues. The feedback will be studied by staff, serving as a guideline to continually improve the online learning system.
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HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Schools Facility Director Roy Perren spoke with Mountain Movers & Shakers on the morning of Friday, Aug. 24, on several subjects – one of which was the process taking place within the school system to ensure students and staff remain safe on campus.
Towns County Schools Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong and Towns County Sheriff Chris Clinton attended the forum, with both officials addressing the issue.
In light of the recent decision reached by Towns County Board of Education to station a second school resource officer on campus, along with an announcement to arm select faculty members, the room filled with local residents paid close attention to the limited details offered by the three officials. Due to the sensitive nature of the matter, based on the solid logic that individuals who may intend to cause harm should not be made privy to specific information that could potentially assist a perpetrator in the fulfillment of a detrimental plan, the trio of leaders adequately ensured, rather, that proper procedures are producing a viable security system.
“School safety is something that’s very important to all of us,” Director Perren began, saying that many in attendance likely have children or grandchildren enrolled in Towns County Schools, “We take it very seriously. Last time I spoke we were planning on having a table-top drill with the emergency management agency. We had it that following Monday. It went really well, and we’ve got people in the community, everybody’s on the same page as far as what we would do in the case of an emergency, whether that would be an active shooter or any type of emergency that might come up in school. We’re really working out getting that plan.”
“We also trained our teachers, and I mentioned last time, in a program called ALICE,” Perren continued, “That stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate. It went really well. The teachers, I feel, felt empowered by it, how they would act in case there was an emergency, and how they could not just be idle, and sit there and get shot, which is unfortunately how, over the years, we’ve trained educators to be, is that, you lock down your room, turn off the lights, and you all go hide in the corner, and wait for somebody to come get you. The main thing we would want to do in the case of an emergency is to be to get out. If there’s any way to get out of the building, we would want to do that. Get them to evacuate.”
Perren advised that if escaping isn’t an option, barricading within the facility is the next best choice, followed by countering the attacker.
Several table-top discussions have occurred over the summer months, in conjunction with Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), with officials from the full-scope of local first responder agencies taking part in the school safety endeavor. According to Perren, an active shooter drill, which will consist of county and city law enforcement, firefighters, and medical staff, is planned to take place in the coming months. The drill will be conducted at a time when classes are not in session.
School Superintendent Berrong stated that strict protocol will be imposed when allowing limited faculty to have access to a firearm to counter a threat in the event of an active shooter scenario. Berrong assured that extensive training is a necessity, and noted an importance for responding law enforcement officers to have the ability to adequately identify an armed protector from an armed intruder.
“I feel comfortable with what’s being done, and I’ll continue to work alongside Dr. Berrong and Mr. Perren to provide the resources needed to succeed, ” Sheriff Clinton told FYN after the meeting, “We’re all on the same page. It’s an ongoing process that is being given due diligence. The safety of Towns County students is top priority for everyone involved.”
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Board of Education proposed a rollback millage rate of 7.671 percent during a special-called meeting on the morning of Tuesday, July 31. An additional meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 23, for Board’s final approval. The session will take place at 7:30 a.m. at the Board of Education office at 67 Lakeview circle in Hiawassee.
Towns County Superintendent Darren Berrong credits a steady increase in real estate values for the rollback, which was set at 7.956 percent in 2017. Real and Personal Property values in Towns County rose from over $731 million in 2013 to nearly $806 million in 2018.
“(The millage rate) is not a reduction in revenue for us, however,” Berrong stated, “It’s actually an increase of revenue of $40,000 which isn’t a significant increase for an individual taxpayer.” Berrong recommended acceptance to advertise the rollback rate, with the Board unanimously approving the motion.
In addition, Towns County Board of Education approved the recommendation of Substitute Teacher Patricia “Trish” Cook, and Community Coach Tyler Crawford during Tuesday’s meeting.
Dr. Berrong stated that campus renovation is proceeding on schedule, with classes resuming on Aug. 16. Berrong said he has not received negative feedback from the community on the Board’s recent discussion on arming school personsell. Berrong says he plans to seek additional input from the community at an upcoming Lions Club meeting. The superindendent made mention of the third table-top emergency responder forum on school safety, scheduled for Aug. 6, disclosing that the school safety plan implemented must first be “approved by all emergency personell.” Detailed information concerning the plan will not be made available to the general public due to the safety-sensitive nature of the issue. As previously reported, the Board approved the hiring of a second school resourse officer to increase the safety level at Towns County Schools.
Towns County Board of Education will meet for their monthly work session at 7 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 6, at the administrative office. Meetings are open to the public.
(Feature Image: Superintendent Darren Berrong (left) with Board member Robert Williams at Tuesday’s meeting)
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Towns County Board of Education convened for a Special Called Meeting on Thursday, July 19, to vote on hiring a second school resource officer to protect Towns County Schools. The Board unanomosly approved the motion. Superintendent Darren Berrong met with Sole Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw and Sheriff Chris Clinton earlier in the day, and the three officials agreed that it is in the best interest of Towns County students to employ an additional officer. Towns County Schools will fund 75 percent of the cost of employment, with 25 percent derived from the Towns County Sheriff’s Office budget. Berrong estimated the cost at $30,000 per year, which will include employee benefits. Berrong stated that the funding had been previously figured into the 2018-2019 school budget.
Discussion of the possibility of arming select school staff ensued, with Board member Robert Williams vocalizing opposition to the notion. Berrong stated that additional dialog will take place as to the specifics. The extent of information released to the public concerning the issue is unknown at the time of publication, as mention was made to keep aspects confidential due to safety concerns. “Only the Board of Education would know,” Berrong said.
If enacted, Berrong asserted that “serious restrictions” would apply, and that staff must comply with state regulations along with stringent measures set forth by the Board. The decision on whether to carry a firearm will be on a voluntary basis, said Berrong.
FetchYournews (FYN) met with Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw the following morning to gather his thoughts on the topic, and while he voiced adament agreement with the hiring of a second school resource officer, Bradshaw said that he was unaware of a discussion related the arming of staff taking place. “An additional officer is definitely the right thing to do for the safety of the children,” Bradshaw stated, declining to offer an opinion on additional precautions due to insufficient knowledge on the Board of Education’s precise plans.
At any rate, the final decision on arming educators lies with the school board.
“The law allows the school board to make such decisions, and I am confident that they will make the decision they feel is best for our school,” Sheriff Clinton tells FYN, “The Office of Sheriff is more than happy to work with our schools in any way. We are thankful for the job they do in teaching and helping our youth.
FYN inquired as to when an active shooter drill will take place, with Berrong directing FYN to Roy Perren, the facility director for Towns County Schools, for specific details.
HIAWASSEE, Ga.- On the evening of May 15, Towns County Sole Commissioner Cliff Bradshaw announced a resolution to amend the 2018 budget, per abidance of Georgia Law, O.C.G.A. 36-81-3, which requires each unit of government to operate under an annual balanced budget, adopted by ordinance or resolution. The resolution includes a $22,152 shift in revenue, transferred from the Towns County Board of Education, into Towns County Sheriff’s Office capital expenditures. The amendment is the result of a Board of Education reimbursement of 75 percent, calculated from the cost of a patrol car purchased for the county’s school resource officer. Towns County Sheriff’s Office absorbed 25 percent of the expense.
“Donnie Jarrard, the DARE officer at the school, needed a new vehicle. He follows the ball teams – you know, baseball, basketball, football – all over the state of Georgia. When they play in Athens, (or) Monroe, he gets home at one, two, sometimes as late as three o’clock in the morning, unfortunately at times,” Bradshaw explained, “His car was starting to get a lot of problems, and it had a lot of miles on it, so I called the (Towns County School) Superintendent Darren Berrong.” Bradshaw went on to say that the cost of the new vehicle was discussed with Berrong, and a decision to divide the expense was agreed upon, based on the 75/25 ratio that the school board and sheriff’s office expend to employ the school resource officer. “We didn’t have to add any money,” Bradshaw continued, “The money was already there in their budget, so it was a no-brainer.”
In addition, Commissioner Bradshaw authorized the opening of an investigation financial account for Towns County Sheriff’s Office. The resolution states that the Towns County Sheriff’s Office at times has “need of access to operational funds” in order to assist the department with law enforcement and investigative services, benefiting the citizens of Towns County in the most efficient manner. The investigation account will be opened at South State Bank, with Towns County Sheriff’s Office Administrator Vicki Ellis, and Towns County Sheriff’s Captain James Baldwin, listed as authorized signers.
“This money that they are going to put into this account is exactly what it says,” Bradshaw said, “It’s an investigation account. They use the money for certain things, to get the bad guys off the streets, and that’s what they’re doing.”
“We don’t want to go too far into detail, you know, and let the bad guys know what they’re doing,” Bradshaw stated.
Commissioner Bradshaw reminded that there will not be a county meeting held in June, as the commissioner will be out-of-town on the scheduled date, with the next session occurring on July 17, at 5:30 p.m. at the Towns County Courthouse.
Bradshaw also noted an increase in residential building permits, elevated from 17 to 31, in comparison to the same time-period last year. Permits for additions rose from 20 to 42 in the similar time frame. Bradshaw believes the spike is a positive indicator of an improving economy.
The commissioner ended the meeting by reminding the public that his door is “always open” to receiving input from the community.
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – Renovation to Towns County School is scheduled to begin after graduation May 18, says Towns County Superintendent Darren Berrong. The 40-year-old school buildings are in desperate need of roof replacement, upgraded wiring, and HVAC systems.
The Towns County Board of Education applied for a $3.3 million modernization grant in 2017, based on an estimate from Robertson Loia Roof, an architectural firm located in Alpharetta, Georgia. Due to the true cost of the renovation, amounting to $4.3 million, the school board has since decided to delay the wiring process, which includes LED lighting, until next year, when additional Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds become available.
During the summer, a heating unit will be installed in the elementary school gym, drop celings will be added to support the addition of larger HVAC units – along with the HVAC system themselves – and the roof will be replaced. The cost associated with the planned construction amounts to $3.6 million. Towns County School will pay the contractors, then submit the bills to the state for reimbursement. The timetable for reimbursement is unclear at this time.
In the event of a budget overage, Berrong says SPLOST funds will be used to avoid a shortage to school operating costs and payroll while awaiting reimbursement.
Renovation is expected to commence shortly after graduation in order for construction to be completed before the 2018-2019 school year begins. The final phase of renovation is expected to conclude by the end of July, with time to reorganize classrooms before the next school year takes effect.
Towns County School qualified for the state modernization grant due to the age of the buildings, and the Board of Education believes the renovations are well-warranted.
HIAWASSEE, Ga. – On the morning of Wednesday, March 14, 2018, a lock-down training exercise took place at Towns County School at 10 a.m. While there was a call for a nationwide walk-out in remembrance of the 17 lives lost Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, many schools across the nation chose a proactive approach.
FetchYourNews (FYN) learned of the drill and hoped to highlight the positive measures taken.
In the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy, FYN has reported on the subject of school safety in Towns, Gilmer, Fannin, Union, Lumpkin, and Dawson County, Georgia, as well as Cherokee County, North Carolina.
While the safety of students is not being called into question, with FYN maintaining conviction that security is of the utmost concern for Towns County School administrators and Towns County first responders, unexpected questions arose during our research.
In a letter forwarded to FYN, dated March 13, 2018, and signed by Towns County Elementary Principal Dr. Sandra Page, parents of elementary school children were advised a day in advance that the drill would occur. The letter reads, in part, that “during an active shooter drill, it is necessary to reenact the scenario of a shooter on campus in order to find strengths and possible weaknesses in our emergency plans.”
The letter goes on to state that “local agencies such as the police, EMS (emergency medical services), and the fire department will be involved in this drill and will be arriving on campus.”
Following an unsuccessful, in-person attempt to acquire sufficient information on the active shooter drill from the Towns County Sheriff’s courthouse office, FYN contacted the emergency agencies listed as participants in the training exercise.
FYN was surprised to learn that the Hiawassee Police Department, Towns County Emergency Medical Services (EMS), Towns County Fire and Rescue, as well as the Towns County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) were not notified that a drill was scheduled, and therefore did not participate.
At a Movers and Shakers meeting held Feb. 23, Towns County Sheriff Chris Clinton, along with Towns County School Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong, spoke with concerned citizens regarding school safety. The sheriff divulged that a few years had passed since an active shooter drill was conducted.
Sheriff Clinton opened his speech by recalling a recent conversation with Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith.
“The chief and I were just discussing this, what, a week ago maybe, that it’s about time that we do another one, and that we do it together,” Sheriff Clinton assured.
Sheriff Clinton continued, “How do we make our children safer? Now. Not some place down the road at some philosophical perfect normal for you, but right now. How do we do that? Frankly, at the end of the day, we have to make it a harder target.”
After referencing the 1999 Columbine tragedy, Sheriff Clinton asked, “What’s been done by the government to make our children safer? Not a single thing. Because a lot of people think they can get up and talk about it, and they can harp on whatever their pet issue is. I’m pro-gun, I’m anti-gun, whatever, but as long as they’re talking about it and people are listening, they are getting political mileage out of it, and they really don’t care. I’m sorry, but I care.
“I’m coming to silence the gun. I’m not coming to survive it. I’m coming to silence the gun,” Sheriff Clinton emphasized. “Frankly, that’s what I expect from every deputy sheriff and every law enforcement officer in this nation. God help me if I have to walk past my own children while they bleed. I’m coming to silence the gun.”
At the conclusion of the forum, Sheriff Clinton acknowledged a need to ensure all first responders are familiar with the school’s campus and lock-down procedure. The sheriff told those in attendance that it is up to the community to decide what level of security they want in place. “I work for you,” Sheriff Clinton reminded.
FYN contacted Sheriff Chris Clinton on the evening of the lock-down in anticipation of learning why his plans to include other emergency agencies had changed.
Sheriff Clinton failed to provide an explanation, focusing rather on garnering the individual identities of FYN’s sources. Shortly after asked if proper protocol was followed, a concern brought to the attention of FYN by an emergency official, Sheriff Clinton ended communication.
The following day, Thursday, March 15, FYN Chief Executive Officer Brian Pritchard sat down with Hiawassee Mayor Liz Ordiales, Hiawassee Police Chief Paul Smith, and Towns County Fire Chief Harold Copeland, reconfirming the lack of communication and coordination.
FYN met with Superintendent Dr. Darren Berrong on Friday, March 16, in search of further clarification.
Berrong revealed that the active shooter drill was implemented between himself and Sheriff Clinton, following the Movers and Shakers forum.
When the question was posed concerning the absence of agencies, Berrong replied, “Well, (the school) wasn’t sure of everyone who was involved. I think there were some of those individuals there.” Upon learning that was not the case, Berrong stated there may have been a miscommunication in verbiage, saying, “Personally, for me, it wasn’t about the fire department. It was about the police officers.”
Berrong was then asked to recap the drill.
“At 10:00, Mr. Perren came over the announcement through all three schools and informed them we were going into a lock-down, that there would be police officers walking through the hallways, make sure to keep your doors locked, and to keep the kids in a safe area,” Superintendent Berrong explained. “While that was going on, police officers were making their rounds through the building, just to make sure they were still familiar with what the campus actually looks like, what’s going on during a lock-down, where can you go and where can’t you go in case there is a shooter in the school, and what areas can we access. They made their rounds through the school while we were in lock-down. We were in lock-down probably ten minutes. Our school isn’t a very big building, you can make a round through there fairly quickly. So ten to fifteen minutes, and pretty much that was the end of the drill.”
FYN inquired if there are plans to hold a subsequent active shooter exercise. “We may have further drills. We don’t have any planned currently,” Dr. Berrong said. “Sheriff Clinton and I are in discussion about this summer, getting together with all personnel, fire department and everyone, just to sit down and make sure everyone has plans of the school building, and make sure everyone has access to the ‘Crisis Go’ app, which alerts people when there is an emergency on campus, and just have another round-table discussion about what we are going to do when something like that happens, how do we shut the campus down. We had one of those several years ago, but it’s about time we had another one.”
FYN contacted Towns County School Facility Director Roy Perren. Director Perren relayed that the exercise was exclusively planned for the Towns County Sheriff’s Office and that there was never an intention to include other emergency agencies. The facility director added that a Towns County School meeting will be held in conjunction with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) April 13 concerning the involvement of all first responders, should an emergency situation arise.
Elementary School Principle Dr. Sandra Page returned FYN’s request for comment on the afternoon of Monday, March 19.
Page stated that to her knowledge, the active shooter exercise was changed to simply a lock-down drill on the morning of March 14, shortly before the training occurred, excluding the need for the involvement of agencies other than the Towns County Sheriff’s Office. “I just wanted to get the information out so that students, parents, and teachers were aware that a drill was going to take place,” Dr. Page said. “That was my main concern.”
This left FYN with more questions than answers, considering that none of the emergency agencies listed in the letter had been notified that an active shooter drill had been scheduled.
Hiawassee Police Department, Towns County EMS, Towns County Fire and Rescue, and Towns County EMA state that their departments expect to take part in future training exercises.