Have you ever been in a situation, say a meeting, where things happen that you don’t quite understand but you definitely know they make you feel icky? Like, you know for a fact something is wrong...something is shady...something is not right?
I went through that many, many times covering the meetings of the Calhoun City Council over the last couple of years previous to last year’s Municipal Elections, and again felt that feeling in my gut at last week’s special called meeting of the Gordon County Board of Education. Could this be Déjà vu? Let me explain...
Last Wednesday, I received a notice from Sharon Seabolt, Gordon County Schools’ administrative assistant to superintendent Dr. Susan Remillard, giving notice of the special called meeting to be held on Friday of last week. Usually, these meetings include topics that usually end up in executive session, which I have no access to, so I usually do not attend the meetings. Honestly, it’s been some time since I’ve been able to attend a school board meeting due to the time and date they are held: Monday night at 6:30 p.m.; Calhoun City Council begins at 7 p.m. So, since I can’t be in two places at one time, and the City Council has been the one that has needed to be reported on over the past couple of years, those school board meetings fell by the wayside.
On Thursday morning of last week, sometime between 8:30 and 9 a.m., a deputy sheriff with the Gordon County Sheriff’s Office hand delivered a small package to me. Usually, when this occurs, it’s a big story, such as a major drug bust, and we get a CD with many mug shots and an explanation of what has happened. Last Thursday, however, there was no CD; I had a two page letter from Sheriff Ralston addressed to each of the seven members of the Gordon County Board of Education and Dr. Susan Remillard. Let me state that anytime I receive something hand-delivered by the GCSO, it is treated as being delivered certified mail; it’s immediately opened and put into our system for publication in our paper. The topic of the letter was Sheriff Ralston’s recommendations for school safety measures for the Gordon County School System. I confirmed with the GCSO that they had delivered to the Board members and they assured me these letters had been delivered to them prior to delivering to me.
After getting the school safety story ready, I revisited going to the Friday morning special called meeting of the BOE, because it was obviously going to be about school safety and the recommendations of the Sheriff. Friday morning, I waltzed into this meeting with my trusty sidekick, Danika Trice. Imagine my surprise when hardly any mention of school safety was made during the meeting.
Without going into great detail, since you can read the story on calhountimes.com, the meeting began with Board member Charlie Walraven questioning large financial decisions, one a payment of $150,000 more than what was approved by the Board for the Ashworth Middle baseball field, and why the Board had not been notified of the expenditures. This immediately raised red flags, because the Board is in place, elected by the citizens of Gordon County, to make sure the administration of the school is working on behalf of the stakeholders of the school system by managing tax-payer dollars.
After this, the Board went into executive session, which is not an uncommon occurrence in any government meeting. Danika and I walked outside and stood for 40 minutes while the Board conducted the meeting. The public meeting was then called back into order, and things got even shadier.
Again, you can read the story on the website, but as soon as Board member Larry Massey asked Dr. Remillard if she could have the Human Resources director explain the difference between the qualifications from the Sonoraville Elementary School posting to the Sonoraville High School posting, and the HR director began talking “District Improvement Plan” and the lowering of standards they require for hiring teachers, the atmosphere in the room changed. The next question Massey asked concerned why the second assistant principal posting was not posted. There was a shroud of mystery in the room, and everyone seemed uncomfortable.
From there, I made flags and stars all over my notes, and after those items were discussed, they went into a very brief mention of school safety. I actually announced, on record, that the reason I came to the meeting was for school safety. And after briefly mentioning school safety, the meeting was adjurned and over.
Again, read the whole story for everything that happened, but from there, deeply confused and feeling “icky,” I spent the weekend in contact with an old friend who taught for 15 years at various schools in South Georgia. And that’s how I found out I had every reason to feel icky, and you should, too, especially if you have a student at the Gordon County School System as I do.
The part that intrigued my friend the most in the recording was the fact that the school system lowered their hiring standards and that the Board didn’t seem to realize they did it! In looking through previous minutes of the Board meetings, there has not been a vote this school year where the Board voted to lower the standards, granted, I’ve pulled every list of minutes from the whole school year and they are all pretty vague.
My friend also pointed out there was a lot of talk about not having certification- this friend explained to me what that meant, and pointed out there was talk of a “clear certificate” and this friend felt that meant someone either wasn’t currently certified or had something against their certificate. My friend then gave me the website to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission (https://www.gapsc.com/Certification/Lookup.aspxf), which, as explained in the story, was created by the Georgia General Assembly in 1991 to assume full responsibility for the preparation, certification, and professional conduct of certified personnel employed in the Georgia public schools. It is public record and you can find any teacher in the State of Georgia’s certification level and anything pertinent about their certificate.
Gordon County Schools is not known for their communication, and even though no one had notified the Calhoun Times of recent hires, I was told they had posted on their Facebook page the hiring of two assistant principals at Sonoraville High School. From there, I took the names of the two hires, entered them into the search on the Georgia Professional Standards Commission page and found information concerning their certification: one was just a level four certification, which is equivalent to an entry-level teacher. The other was a higher level certification but had an ethics case on their certificate. I then contacted the Georgia Professional Standards Commission by email with a records request concerning the ethics case, and spoke to Mr. Paul Shaw, who was very helpful in getting me all the information from my records request that I needed.
While I was searching the website, I entered the names of everyone I could find listed as assistant principal or principal in Gordon County Schools. Again, read the story for what I found in my search.
Basically, what I discovered by attending last Friday’s meeting is that we have a big problem in the Gordon County School System, and it seems to center around the administration and leadership, not the actual Board members. The meeting was very convoluted and nothing was explained in great detail by the leadership. A lot of the problem seems to center around communication. It was as if when a Board member asked a question, the answer was very clipped and edited...it’s probably the hardest meeting I’ve ever had to dictate and report on.
After my story hit, we had several anonymous calls from employees of the school system who see so much more going on concerning hirings and promotions of teachers within the system, and the lowering of the qualifications for teachers to assume leadership roles seems to be making it easier for those less qualified to get better jobs over those more qualified. Those that called said they’d never complain to administration because there’s been a history of those who complain being relieved of their duties. So, as a society, we complain of all the bullying going on with students at our schools, yet our teachers are being bullied to not voice their opinions and concerns?
I remember getting anonymous calls from City employees who were threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t go along with the wild and crazy plans of the notorious Three Amigos. Déjà vu much?
I’m still researching but it seems I’m coming up with more questions than answers. That’s never a good thing. My friend gave me additional sites to check if I wanted to really hold feet to the fire, so something else I found by searching open.georgia.gov (a website to search how the State of Georgia spends their tax dollars) you can find everyone in the school systems salary and who has had what kind of raise over the years.
Ultimately, I do not like going after our local schools because I understand their job is hard enough, but after last Friday’s meeting, it is very apparent there needs to be accountability and it appears it needs to come from the leadership of the system. My job is to expose and make sure the local government entities are being as transparent as possible, and I do not feel we’re getting transparency from Gordon County Schools.
Charlie Walraven seemed a little perturbed Friday and requested the administration to begin letting the Board know what was going on. The only problem I have with his request is there is never a reason for any member of that Board to REQUEST the administration to keep them in the loop. They should DEMAND the administration to be transparent and to notify the Board of what is happening. Honestly, I’m a little perturbed at all this myself, and can promise there is so much more to come. The coverage of the happenings at the Gordon School System is far from over.
Brandi Moorehead-Owczarz is the Managing Editor of the Calhoun Times. You can contact Brandi at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Facebook by searching Brandi Moorehead Owczarz.