Republican Brad Raffensperger won a runoff election Tuesday to become Georgia's next secretary of state, taking over the office at the center of a debate over voter access and election security in the state.
Raffensperger, a state lawmaker from suburban Atlanta, defeated former Democratic congressman John Barrow to become Georgia's top elections official, the office vacated by Gov.-elect Brian Kemp.
At his victory party late Tuesday, Raffensperger told supporters he would faithfully carry out elections in Georgia.
"I'm going to make sure that elections are clean, fair and accurate," he said. "And that's the No. 1 priority as your next secretary of state."
Floyd County voters chose Raffensperger — by a slightly bigger margin than they did in the general election.
On Tuesday, Raffensperger won 72.45 percent of the 10,481 votes cast locally, beating Barrow 7,594 to 2,887. In November, he took 69.47 percent.
Turnout countywide was 20.03 percent, down considerably from the 57.79 percent of registered voters who went to the polls Nov. 6.
In the Public Service Commission runoff, Republican Chuck Eaton was re-elected to a third term. He defeated Democrat Lindy Miller for the commission's District 3 seat.
Eaton was again the local favorite with 71.02 percent of the vote, pulling down 7,422 votes to Miller's 3,029.
Floyd County Elections Board Chair Steve Miller said the totals in both races are unofficial and he expects some adjustment when the races are certified.
A consent order valid only for this election allows all absentee ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Tuesday and received by Friday. Normally, the extended deadline applies just to military and other overseas ballots.
Miller said they plan to count the rest of the absentee and validated provisional ballots Friday, and the secretary of state is scheduled to certify the statewide vote Monday.
However, he said state officials may decide to bump that out another day because the U.S. Postal Service is closed today — a National Day of Mourning for the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush.
The secretary of state runoff campaign played out against the backdrop of Democratic accusations that Kemp used his position to suppress minority turnout and increase his own odds of victory. Kemp insists that's false, pointing to large increases in voter registration on his watch and record turnout in the Nov. 6 midterms.
Raffensperger finished the three-way general election race ahead of Barrow, but just shy of the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.
Issues that dogged Kemp in the general election — Georgia's strict "exact match" policy for confirming voters' identities and reports that the state's aging electronic voting system was vulnerable to hackers — became the focus of the race to succeed him.
Both Raffensperger and Barrow promised to replace Georgia's voting machines with a system that produces paper records that could be used to audit elections if needed.
Meanwhile, Raffensperger pledged to continue Kemp's practices of strictly enforcing voter ID laws and pruning registration rolls of inactive voters to prevent voting fraud. Barrow said Georgia needed to make it less difficult to cast ballots.
President Donald Trump endorsed Raffensperger with a tweet calling the Republican "tough on Crime and Borders."
The secretary of state oversees elections, professional licensing and business incorporation in Georgia. The office has no law enforcement role.
Kemp's Democratic rival for governor, Stacey Abrams, urged voters to support Barrow during the same speech in which she acknowledged defeat and announced she would sue to challenge the way Georgia runs elections. That suit was filed in federal court last week.
Barrow also won an endorsement from Smythe DuVal, the Libertarian candidate whose distant thirdplace finish in November forced the race into overtime.
Raffensperger served four years in the Georgia House before running for statewide office. He will take over as secretary of state in January from Robyn Crittenden, who was appointed to the office when Kemp stepped aside last month.
Barrow sought a political comeback after losing his U.S. House seat in 2014. He served a decade in Congress representing a large swath of eastern Georgia that included Athens, Augusta and Savannah.
Rome News-Tribune staff writer Diane Wagner contributed to this report.
Unity and cooperation were the watchwords Tuesday when Rome City and Floyd County commissioners met over breakfast to discuss plans for a new economic development model.
The 14 elected officials — five county, nine city — essentially agreed to join forces on a more accountable system of recruiting new jobs and industries. Designating an experienced professional to lead the efforts also appeared to net a consensus. Differences arose, however, on the details.
County commissioners have all signed off on a recommendation to create a new development authority with six appointees, three by each board. The authority, with input from the city and county managers, would employ the professional recruiter and create a structure to support him or her.
"We've worked out multiple agreements," County Commissioner Wright Bagby told the Rome board he once led as mayor. "This is how it's done. You start with a concept and work out the details as we go along."
City commissioners indicated support, but several want more of the plan in place first.
"I've underestimated the difficulty of this new model," said Mayor Jamie Doss, who has said he's ready to move on it.
Commissioners Craig McDaniel, Randy Quick and Bill Collins also voiced confidence in the recommendation. Collins said he's glad county commissioners are pushing things along and emphasized his concerns for his children and grandchildren.
"When they go off to college, will they come back?" he asked. "Other communities are landing all these great jobs that don't come to our community. ... We have a proven relationship, with the two governments working together to make things better as a whole."
There's no choice but to work together and the process works well if "the hard questions" are answered, City Commissioner Evie McNiece said. She called for the recommended concept to be fine-tuned through a committee.
"Are we going to have the money to do what we say we're going to do, or are we going to have to go back to the taxpayers and say we need more because we failed to plan?" McNiece said.
City Commissioner Bill Irmscher also said — "though we are all unified, we are all neighbors" — he wants a committee to come up with concrete plans that can be evaluated. So did City Commissioners Milton Slack and Sundai Stevenson.
"It's been said that a goal without a plan is just a wish," Stevenson said, adding that the evaluation should include a look at "the talent we have now," funding sources and public input.
"I'm not going to make a rash decision; we need a comprehensive plan," she said.
Other options include revamping the current contract with the Rome Floyd Chamber, which is looking for a director to replace the retiring Al Hodge.
Or using the Rome Floyd-County Development Authority, which has independent powers granted by an act of the state legislature.
Pete McDonald, who chairs the RFCDA as chairman of the chamber, said the entity — which elects its own members — has a funding source, the ability to hire staff and connections with existing businesses, small and large.
City Commissioner Wendy Davis proposed working within the current model, saying the county remained relatively strong through the recession because it doesn't rely on just a few major employers.
But the model should be updated, she said, so it's based on the community's strong points instead of the availability of interstate access and large tracts of land.
"Let's sit down together with a wide variety of stakeholders," she said. "If we have thoughtful conversations, I bet we can get the chamber leaders to agree to give county and city leaders more input. Likewise, we can make adjustments to our existing RFCDA to make sure we have strong leadership rather than revolving players."
West End Elementary has been selected to be nationally recognized by the National Association of Elementary and Secondary Education Act State Program Administrators as a Distinguished School, while also being recognized as a top 5 percent Title I school along with East Central Elementary.
West End was recognized by the National ESEA Distinguished Schools Program for improving its CCRPI scores during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 schools years. To qualify as for the ESEA program, schools must first be placed in the top 5 percent in the state. The school then must fill out an application and show that they have completed one of three categories required by the National ESEA Distinguished Schools Program.
West End Principal Dennis Drummond, who is in his second year at the school, added that they could not have achieved the honor without the leadership of former principal Buffi Murphy, who led the school to qualify for this program. He said Murphy implemented programs to help raise expectations in students with an emphasis on growth every year, worked on a reading, writing and math model, as well as supported positive behavior.
Drummond said he has picked up where she left off and tries to continue her work.
"I am so proud that our amazing students, families, and faculty and staff are receiving this well-deserved recognition," said Drummond. "We look forward to continuing this success in the days ahead as we work to equip all of our students to graduate from Rome High School prepared for college or work."
Schools named are invited to participate in a conference in Kansas City, Missouri, running from Jan. 30 through Feb. 2. West End Elementary is invited to send a team of representatives to the conference who will detail their programs to other schools in the nation and also hear about efforts other nominees are using across the country to better educate their students.
Additionally, the schools chosen will be recognized by national publications via a press release from the National Association of ESEA Program Administrators.
Rome City Schools also announced West End Elementary and East Central Elementary both were placed on the State of Georgia's Title I Distinguished Schools list which recognizes the top 5 percent Title I schools in the state.
Distinguished Schools are ranked according to their most recent CCRPI score and are considered to be the top public schools in the state. In the state of Georgia, only 84 schools have earned this distinction. Two other schools, Trion Elementary with Trion City Schools and White Elementary with Bartow County Schools, were the only organizations to receive this distinct recognition out of all public schools in Northwest Georgia.
"Receiving this award represents East Central's dedication to teaching at the highest level of rigor while supporting our students through meaningful relationships," said Kristin Teems, principal of East Central. "As East Central's principal, I witness the commitment of our staff in eliminating obstacles and creating opportunities for every child who steps through our door every day."
She said the hard work of many resulted in this achievement, and that it is indicative of how hard all of RCS schools are working to become the best in the state. This award is shared by East Central's students, parents, staff, teachers and administration, Teems added.
Rome City Schools contributed to this report.
The Floyd County Board of Education met for their final 2018 meeting Tuesday night with updates on current projects, next year's and recognition of the system's teachers of the year.
With the calendar year ending, board members focused some on planning for the 2019-2020 school year's budget. The vast majority of the school systems funding comes from state or local property tax. Unfortunately, since student numbers have declined, revenue dollars from the state will also decline, said Greg Studdard, executive director of finance for FCS. He projected a loss of about a million dollars in revenue while expenses will stay the same. This means board members will have to look at how to raise that money back or if they need to cut something.
"We are going to look where our savings were," Superintendent Jeff Wilson said.
Wilson added this is something the board will look carefully at in the budget as they plan next year's budget at upcoming retreats and future board meetings.
Rainy weather has delayed full completion on a handful of projects underway across the system, Deputy Superintendent April Childers said. Pepperell Primary's drainage project and Armuchee High School's new gym are over 90 percent complete with workers waiting on dry ground to completely finish the projects. Meanwhile abatement has been completed on the Midway building, and the board is working with the county to set a date for demolition.
The board also voted Tuesday to use the current Pepperell Middle School site for the construction of the new middle school which will begin in summer 2019.
Board members also recognized 19 teacher of the year recipients for outstanding performance at their various schools. Zach Mendence was recognized as Pepperell Elementary School's Teacher of the Year, Floyd County Schools' Elementary Teacher of the Year and Floyd County Schools' 2019 System Teacher of the Year. The recipients were handed their certificates by their district board member while a brief video played giving background to the teachers' work.
Also recognized at Tuesday night's board meeting was Abbi Shetter, a dual-enrollment senior from Pepperell High School who has completed all graduation requirements through the Floyd Transitional Academy. Shetter will walk with her fellow Pepperell High students in May, but in the meantime will continue her 12 hours of course work with Georgia Highlands earning college credit along the way.
The final things discussed at the board meeting were updates to the tobacco policy and dress code. Vape pens and Juul pods, both types of nicotine devices, have been added to the tobacco policy at FCS, banning them from campuses and using them will have the same punishments as other tobacco products. An update to the dress code policy was also added, banning hats sporting profanity as well as shorts with holes in them.
Today's artwork is by Tessa Teems, a first-grader at Model Elementary School.