Tuesday night, July 9, the house was packed at the Walker County Water and Sewerage Authority in Flintstone, Ga.
The Authority board directors were all in attendance — Annette North, Scott Abston, William "Bill" Cooke, Michael Haney (vice chairman), and Shannon Whitfield (chairman).
And while the Authority has recently made headline news for a lawsuit against the government entity pertaining to a dispute about billing and payment for outside services from a neighboring state, no one who sought to address the board July 9 raised the issue.
Instead, the Authority board directors fielded questions and concerns about other issues, such as incorrect billing, low water pressure, high water pressure, deposit for services, and more.
The board chairman led the meeting, but many of the different experts on the payroll of the Authority addressed customers when it pertained to their area of expertise. And, all board directors agreed unanimously when it came to resolutions for the situations presented.
For example, one water customer with knowledge of laying water pipes was experiencing too high a water pressure, so a technical expert sitting at the table who was affiliated with the Authority took time to physically draw on paper a solution and to explain it to the man who took his time to come to the Authority for help.
That customer, like all the others, were given all the time they needed to voice and vent. Yet, they were all treated respectfully by the board — and the customers were all respectful to the board directors.
The Walker County Water and Sewerage Authority will meet Tuesday, Aug. 13, at the Authority's office, 4665 Happy Valley Road, Flintstone. The meeting is open to the public.
Chickamauga Planning and Zoning meets the third Thursday of the month at 6 p.m. at the Chickamauga Civic Center located at 1817 Lee Clarkson Rd., Chickamauga. The meetings are open to the public.
LaFayette's Mayor and City Council meet the second Monday night of each month. The meetings begin at 6:30 p.m. and are held at City Hall, located at 207 S. Duke Street in LaFayette. The meetings are open to the public and any citizen may speak at a council meeting on any subject. There is no time limit and no advance notice to speak is required.
Lookout Mountain's Mayor and City Council meet the second Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. (if that Thursday falls on a legal holiday the council meet the next successive Thursday). The meetings are held in council chambers at city hall, located at 1214 Lula Lake Rd., Lookout Mountain.
Rossville City Council meets the second Monday of the month at 7 p.m. at Rossville's City Hall building located at 400 McFarland Ave., Rossville. The meeting is open to the public, but to request a place on the agenda in order to speak citizens must first contact the city clerk Sherry Foster at (706) 866-1325. A time limit of five minutes is allotted to those citizens registered to speak. However, the council can choose to allow more time at their discretion.
Walker County's Planning Commission meets the third Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Walker County Civic Center located at 10052 N. Hwy. 27 in Rock Spring. The meeting is open to the public for discussion regarding items on that week's agenda, but there is a five-minute time limit in order to accommodate everyone who might wish to speak.
Walker County's Sole Commissioner holds meetings on the second and fourth Thursday each month at 6 p.m., which are open to the public and held in the Courthouse Annex III Building, 201 S. Main Street, LaFayette. Any citizen may speak at a commission meeting on any subject for five minutes following official business. No advance notice is required. The commissioner may extend a citizen's allotted time if they feel the situation merits it.
The Walker County Sheriff's Office continues to push forward in its death investigation into the unexplained passing of Britney Parker Cole, 31, Sheriff Steve Wilson said on July 15.
However, there is still no update on the toxicology screening that the sheriff's office expedited with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations late last week.
The sheriff had requested on Friday, July 12 that the G.B.I. expedite the toxicology lab tests because there was still no word from the lab on the toxicology results, and it had been three weeks since Cole was found dead.
Mrs. Cole's body was found on June 18 approximately 115 feet off a rural road in the 2900 block of Old Mineral Springs Road, which is two miles southeast of the local Super Walmart on U.S. Hwy. 27 just outside LaFayette city limits.
The sheriff's office has been awaiting toxicology results from the GBI crime lab for
a little over three weeks in the death investigation case.
Toxicology results can be delayed due to the high number of requests being made by law enforcement agencies around the state. Expediting a request for toxicology results can result in additional expense for a law enforcement agency, and it is not always undertaken in every case.
Husband arrested for parole violation
Britney Parker Cole's husband, Bobby J. "B.J." Cole, was arrested on a parole violation following her death and subsequent death investigation, but he has not been officially named a suspect in the case at this time, according to Sheriff Wilson.
Mr. Cole was taken back into custody by Walker County Sheriff's Office after fleeing his residence and the county, where he was re-housed and awaiting transport back to the Georgia Department of Corrections after signing a waiver of rights and further hearing on the matter of parole revocation.
School chief discusses self, budget, and proposed property tax rate hike
On Thursday, July 11, Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines agreed to discuss the process for approving the school board's proposed new fiscal year budget and the planned hike in millage (property tax) rate needed to fund the budget.
Superintendent, I am new to the community myself, but I don't know if a personal profile has ever been done on you in the media for the Walker County public, so tell me a little bit about yourself.
Yeah, maybe when I first started they did some things, way back when. But, I have not followed the typical path to becoming a school superintendent. My path was I went to work right out of college. I got married. I went to work for a sign company. I worked there for a number of years. I left there and went to PNS School and Office Supply, so that was kind of my introduction to teachers, because they dealt with, primarily, schools and teachers.
I worked for three-and-a-half years there and went from working as the night manager to the operations manager of the entire organization. And, then, I was actually fired from that position when my wife was nine months pregnant. So, I tell my teachers that I know what that feels like. A lot of time teachers don't understand that because when they come in and get tenure, that's a different process. I came from a different world.
And, so, I went from there into toy retail, and I spent 11 years in toy retail. I worked my way from a store manager to a marketing manager for a region and loved it. I did a lot with customer service and with loss prevention. But, I never came home with any of those stories my wife was coming home with as a teacher.
She would come home and tell me these amazing things about her kids. I kept hearing that and thought, you know money will only get so much. I wanted to have that personal connection and to know that I was having some level of impact into the life of a child. I had my own children, so I took that very seriously as well.
I went back at night and got my master's degree at UTC (University of Tennessee) in special education. Got a job in Catoosa County as a special education teacher and from that point I spent a few years in the classroom. They moved me into administration quickly because of my background. I was an assistant principal and a principal. The superintendent then moved me to the central office in an operational role. I spent six years doing that, and then the seventh year was the year of the tornado.
So, I spent a year rebuilding. I spent $65 million dollars in insurance money
(for the school system). It was the largest insurance claim ever in the history of school systems. And, I'm not bragging on that at all, I'm just saying that it was a devastating blow. And I think during that time the Walker County system was looking for a superintendent and one of their board members actually worked in Catoosa and watched me first-hand do that (rebuilding).
And, when I say me, I don't mean "me." I had a great team. A great team. But, we did some pretty amazing things and four months later we had the school back open. And that was a pretty daunting feat after the tornado. And, I think they watched that. And they saw the leadership capacity there and they (Walker County) asked me to interview.
And most people don't realize this, but during that time the job posting came out. And, the job posting for a superintendent is sent to every superintendent in the state, to their school system. And if they have somebody that might fit that, the superintendent will pass that along, thinking 'I wonder if they are interested in doing that,'?
Well, my superintendent came to me, Ms. Reese — and she was a great mentor to me, and she said 'Hey, I don't ever want to be accused of not allowing people to pursue things if they want to. And you're going to be a superintendent one day, so you might want to consider this.
Well, at the time, my daughter — we have two children — my daughter had just been diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis). So, we were kind of reeling a little bit, and, so I just didn't feel like the timing was right at that point. And, so, I told Ms. Reese that I've got way too much on my plate right now. We just came out of the tornado, I just learned this, and we're figuring this out. I don't think I'm gonna do that. And, so, we threw it away.
And, then, February rolled around and the last day for you to put your name in (for the superintendent job) I received three phone calls from Walker County.
They said, "We've just been watching you. You need to put your name in for this. And, I felt like that was the Lord's way of telling me, 'You know you might want to just at least consider this opportunity,' so I put my name in and March of that year at the board meeting they named me superintendent.
And, I worked both jobs until I finished my contract in Catoosa that June 30 and then started here July 1. And, this is starting my eighth year, so this has been a great, a great — I don't even want to use the word "ride" — it's been a great experience.
It really has. Great people, great teachers, a great community and our students are phenomenal. And, so, for me I don't consider myself the normal superintendent.
I go out to our schools every day. I like to be around our kids. I like for our kids to see and know me. I like for our community to know who I am. It's important for me for your child — if you have a child in our system — for him to know who Mr. Raines is and what he does.
When I pull up to a ball field and a kid tells their parents "Mr. Raines is here," and they are like, "How do you know who Mr. Raines is?" And, they're like, well, that's his car because I see him at my school. He comes in my classroom...and that's important to me. So, I've done it a little differently than most of my colleagues. But, that doesn't mean my way is right and their way is wrong. I would never say that at all.
It's just the way that I felt like I needed to do it. And, my background was with customers. I'm very customer-focused. I make sure my principals are customer-focused. We don't have a product, but our students are our customers, and so we have got to make sure we are doing what is right with those students and their parents.
It's been a great journey for me so far. And, we've had some — what I think is — amazing progress, here.
When I started here, we were graduating 69.4% of our kids. We're graduating 88% of our kids now. That's not because of me. That's a great team. But, we've made some huge progress.
Mr. Raines, what do you want to accomplish for the school system?
So, the obvious would be that we are graduating 100% of our kids.
What's stopping us from reaching that goal?
So, you know we've made huge progress. We are sitting at 90% at Ridgeland High School and 86% at LaFayette High School. So, we are well on our way of making great progress towards that and even past that.
A higher percentage of our kids are going on to college. That's a two-year, or four-year or even post-secondary. That's been a huge increase. It's gone from about 28% when I started and we are up to about 43% now of our kids. We're offering more dual-enrollment in our buildings, too.
When students are contemplating their future, we try to look at it from the perspective: What do you want to do? What can you afford to do? And, then, how can we help you achieve that goal?
I don't ever tell a child "you're never going to reach that goal." If they have that goal, I'm gonna help you as much as I can to help you reach it. But, it begins with the diploma. If you don't have that diploma in your hand, you're gonna struggle; you're gonna be kind of behind the eight-ball.
So, we are getting our kids to see that — getting their diploma — is the most important piece. And, then, what is the next step. And, you (the student) define what is the next step, and then let us help you get there.
What are some challenges regarding raising the graduation rate of students in Walker County?
We'll get to 100% (graduation rate), but it's difficult because there are so many things stacked against you (as a school).
For example, a student with special needs — they already count as a 'drop-out' in Georgia law.
Environmental factors out side of our control, is another example, such as a home life issue, which is outside of our control. We are supporting students in those situations as much as we can, providing them with the same level of opportunities and enhancements.
I convinced our folks to stop thinking about all the excuses and the reasons why we are not (reaching 100% graduation rates). We have them (students) for seven hours a day; what are we doing during that time period to get them to that point?
And, so, that mind shift is more of a growth mindset, to think about what we are doing in the time we have them; how we are impacting them. Instead of always thinking about "well, I don't control that, and that is having an impact."
And, it does have an impact. But we can't think about it like that. We've got to take them and move them as far as we can based upon the time frame that we have them.
So, given these environmental factors (home issues) that impact students and learning, how many counselors are available at the schools to help such students overcome these challenges?
So, we have a counselor in every school. When you get to the middle school, we have two counselors, and when you get to the high school level, you have three or four, depending on the number of kids they serve.
The state dictates that you have to have one counselor for so many students. So we've tried to get close to that number.
What is that number?
Four hundred and fifty. You have to have one for every four hundred and fifty.
Would you say that is shortchanging the students?
It definitely is. But, now, the government did come back and has given us some dollars for our mental health profession to be at our high schools next year, which we've already been working with Georgia Hope, Lookout Mountain Community Board and Primary Health Care.
But these dollars will be for in-house help for the students, right?
Yes and our Georgia Hope folks are already in-house, because we are dealing with a lot more issues that students are dealing with that I didn't deal with as a student. Are they weren't as prevalent — or publicized with the media. And, so our kids come with a lot of different issues, and we have to deal with that, so having those folks who are trained.
Because, think about it, our guidance counselors are specifically trained in guiding kids on tracks to school, not so much on social and emotional issues, so we are having to expand our guidance counselors on their professional development, while also adding those folks who are trained that are in our buildings as well.
So since the governor has approved the hiring of these specialized individuals you will be able to add to your staff. Give me a number.
Oh, we are only talking about one at each high school.
So, two total?
The Walker County school board held its first public hearing in the legal process required to approve its proposed 2019-20 budget.
The Tuesday, July 9, meeting at the county's Advancing Education Center at 925 Osburn Road in Chickamauga was the site of the first of the two required hearings.
A notice informing the public that they could attend and speak out about any concerns they had regarding the proposed budget resulted in an attendance of only three in the audience at the July 9 meeting.
During the meeting, School Superintendent Damon Raines was joined by members of the Board of Education, which include Bobby McNabb, Dale Wilson, Phyllis Hunter, Karen Stoker, and Mike Carruth, who was in attendance via phone.
"This is a budget work session," Karen Stoker informed the audience of three.
Raines added that this first public hearing on the proposed 2019-20 budget was preceded by three work sessions by the board, so they had already done a lot of work on it but now had to give the public the opportunity to oppose or make recommendations for changes.
"We are required by law to have two public hearings (before a budget can be approved)," Raines said.
Following his opening remarks, the school's superintendent also explained the budgeting process the school currently employs, to those in the audience that might be unaware.
"When we start looking at building a budget, we typically try to balance our projected revenues and expenditures," Raines said.
"We have to wait until this time of year to get the county's reassessment of property and the values, so that we can see what that amounts going to be on our local level."
Property taxation and millage rate
Property values will figure in importantly on this year's budget for the school system given that the school board has tentatively adopted a millage (property tax) rate that will require an increase in property taxes of 4.84 percent in order to fund the board's spending objectives.
Those objectives, reflected in a PowerPoint presentation by Raines, include a graph that depicts approximately 90 percent of funding will go to salaries (including raises not covered by state funding) and approximately 10 percent of funding will cover operational costs to run the school system.
Raines also explained that "the board kind of has a way to look at federal dollars and state dollars and figure out what exactly is going to be coming to us (from these two funding sources)."
Therefore, according to Raines, the board is aware early on in the year of any federal or state decreases in funding that they will not receive for the upcoming 2019-20 budget period; and, thus, the need to explore other means of making up that shortfall.
One public member in attendance asked about the ability to seek grants rather than put the burden of further taxation on those in the community who can ill afford greater property taxation, such as the elderly or disabled.
The superintendent assured her that he and the school board had also considered grant funding as well, but the grants that were most beneficial were also the most restricting in how they could be used, figuratively tying the hands of the school in ways that were too restrictive.
The audience member suggested grants that might not be as lucrative but would still be worthy of consideration, to which Raines said the board was always open to pursuing in the future.
Budget shortfall solution
As a result of the board's limited ability to find funding for the shortfall between federal and state funding — such as the shortfall of funding the school will experience because the state's governor has approved a pay raise for some faculty and staff, but will not cover all of the raise expenses the school will incur for all personnel, the board has turned to local taxation as a solution.
"They (the local property tax authorities) typically get that to us starting in May," Raines said, referring to the county's annual reassessment of property and value.
This annual reassessment can be used to evaluate if a community can be a source of additional funding to support the school system through a millage rate increase.
Millage rates and school funding
Millage rates are used to determine property taxes on homes in a given community. Millage rates can be raised to help increase local funding for the local school system.
For example, a home valued at $100,000 and in a county that has a millage rate of 30 percent — which, superintendent Raines said is how high Walker County could raise the millage rate, legally — would result in a homeowner being taxed $30 for every $1,000 of assessed value of his property, which is assessed at 40% of its market value.
In Walker County, specifically, that is not the millage rate currently being sought, even though the school system's superintendent said it could go as high as 30 percent.
Additionally, Raines said the initial May numbers provided by the county's tax assessment department is then updated later with more concrete numbers.
"The update is in June, so we try to balance these out."
The initial information provided by the county tax assessor's office gives the school system a general idea of what type of local funding they could ask for in a millage rate increase, with the final June number providing them a more definitive idea of what would be feasible based upon the values of the property in the local area — and how much it has gained in value.
The outspoken individual who attended the first public hearing July 9 expressed a position that others in the community have shared on social media posts on news websites:
Just because a property value is going up does not mean the homeowner's income is being raised to be able to afford an increase in property taxation to support a growing school board budget — so someone else can get a raise.
Next and final school budget hearing
The second public hearing scheduled for discussion about the tentative school budget will be held on Monday, July 15, at the Walker County Department of Education at 201 S. Duke Street in LaFayette.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. and is open to the public.
Everyone interested in expressing their position on the issue at hand is encouraged to attend, according to Raines, who says he welcomes the opportunity to inform the public on this transparent process.