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Sisters identified as homicide victims as GBI asks for assistance

The GBI confirmed Thursday it is treating the deaths of two Floyd County women as homicides after their bodies were discovered under a bridge on the East Rome Bypass.

Vanita Nicole “Vera” Richardson, 19, and Truvenia Clarece “Bean” Campbell, 31, were found dead under a bridge on Ga. Loop 1 near the bank of the Etowah River on Wednesday morning. The circumstances surrounding their deaths are still under investigation.

Floyd County Chief Deputy Coroner Connie Chandler confirmed the identity of the two women, who were sisters. Chandler said the bodies were taken to the state crime lab Thursday morning.

The GBI, who is assisting with the investigation after a request by Rome police, is asking anyone who may have seen anything suspicious while traveling through the area of the bridge between 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and 11 a.m. Wednesday to contact them at 1-800-597-TIPS.

Multiple posts to both women’s social media pages mourned their deaths. Richardson attended Armuchee High School and was scheduled to graduate this year.

Floyd County Schools spokesperson Lenora McEntire Doss issued a statement from the school district Thursday afternoon expressing its condolences to Richardson’s family and the school.

“We are deeply saddened and heartbroken by the news of the death of one of our students, Vanita Richardson, who was scheduled to graduate next Saturday,” read the statement.

“We extend our deepest sympathies to the Armuchee Community and her friends and family at this time. Our thoughts and prayers are with them. Vanita will be remembered for being a fun-loving, humble and motivated student who was making strong plans for her future.”

Doss said staff remembered Richardson as a “caring personality and a big heart.”

Armuchee High School students were sent contact information for the school’s social worker and counselor, who are available for virtual grief and loss counseling sessions while school buildings remained closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doss said the high school and the district are working on details on how to honor Richardson’s memory during both Armuchee’s drive-through graduation ceremony May 23 and its planned in-person graduation ceremony in July.

GBI Assistant Special Agent In Charge Brian Johnston said Wednesday the bodies were apparently dropped over the bridge near the south bank of the Etowah River, just south of Grizzard Park.

He said a pair of GDOT workers initially found the bodies while at the site to perform routine maintenance on the bridge.

Local law enforcement and the GBI spent nearly four hours at the scene Wednesday with assistance from several emergency agencies. Rome-Floyd Fire Department personnel were called in to help recover the bodies by pulling them up to the bridge.

Magistrate Court to resume hearings in June with social distancing guidelines

Floyd County Magistrate Court will resume scheduling hearings on Monday with social distancing guidelines in place to ensure the safety of the workers and people.

Chief Magistrate Gene Richardson said they will be scheduling hearings for dispossessory cases, ordinance violations and civil cases.

On May 11, Chief Justice Harold Melton of the Georgia Supreme Court signed a second order extending the judicial state of emergency through June 12. However, the chief justice also included in the order the permission to do court hearings following guidelines that comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Public Health.

Anyone who enters the courthouse will be screened beforehand in accordance with CDC and DPH guidelines. Richardson said that while they don’t require people to wear a mask, guidelines recommend it.

There will also be a limit on how many people can enter the courtroom to ensure spacing of 6 feet apart. The courtroom floors will be marked to help people maintain safe distances and sanitation stations will be available at each courtroom entrance as well.

Before and after each hearing, court staff will have the courtroom sanitized and fogged.

The court will also make accommodations for people who are considered high risk that have hearings. The person must contact court clerk Kristy Coogler at 706-291-5250 no later than three business days before the hearing. The person must provide proof that they are high risk, such as a driver’s license or note from a doctor.

“If we hear that someone’s got health conditions or is at-risk, we’re not going to make them come,” Richardson said.

Hearings will also be staggered out to limit the amount of people coming in and out of the courtroom in one day. Additional court sessions have also been added to the schedule to accommodate the backlog of hearings.

Richardson hopes to have the court ready for the first hearing around the beginning of June.

These guidelines are open to changes by the court depending on how circumstances change, he noted.

Abbie Fowler, a third-grader at Armuchee Elementary School

Coosa Valley Fair: 'If we do it, it's going to be safe'

Coosa Valley Fair Association President J.P. Cooper isn’t getting a lot of sleep nowadays. The man at the helm of the organization that puts on Fall’s Finest Festival said Thursday that October might sound a long way off, but it isn’t.

It’s right around the corner when you’re trying to plan a fair that traditionally brings tens of thousands of people to the fairgrounds five nights in a row while the country is in the throes of a pandemic.

The Thursday report from the Georgia Department of Public Health listed Floyd County with 165 confirmed cases of COVID-19, up five from the day before. Three patients were being treated at Floyd Medical Center Thursday and one was hospitalized at Redmond.

“If we do it, it’s going to be safe,” Cooper said.

His head is spinning with the knowledge that not only is the fair dependent on weather but, this year, it’s dependent on public health officials as well as federal, state and local government officials.

Cooper said the heat last year cut into the profits from the fair, most of which go to the Exchange Club Family Resource Center. He’s a little worried that even if the fair does happen, that attendance will be low as a result of people concerned about not wanting to wade into a big crowd.

“I’m anticipating gate revenue to be off significantly,” Cooper said.

Tina Bartleson, executive director of the Family Resource Center, said she typically gets between $20,000 and $25,000 from the Exchange Club and Coosa Valley Fair.

“It would certainly have an impact on us,” Bartleson said. “We seem to be getting a lot of those impacts from all over the place.”

She said staff with the Division of Family and Children Services is expected to resume home visits in July and she assumes that means she’ll start getting a few more referrals at that point.

“Right now, my plan is that we’re going to have a fair,” Cooper said. But there are a lot of variables that will have to fall into place to make it happen.

“The cold, hard facts are we just don’t know,” said Cooper.

Northwest District Public Health Director Dr. Gary Voccio is going to be asked to meet soon with the fair executive board.

“They talk about a possible resurgence in the fall,” Cooper said. “I’m sweating it.”

Cooper has also reached out to the owners of W.G. Wade Shows, the company that provides the midway rides for the fair, to see how they are doing. He said Wade had probably missed out on a dozen or more fairs already this spring.

The Coosa Valley Fair Association keeps about a year’s worth of operating expenses in reserve.

“Normally that’s held back in the case of a rain-out,” Cooper said. “We have to keep up the grounds, the buildings. There is a caretaker on the payroll.”

“I’ve already forewarned the Family Resource Center that this may be a tough year,” he added.

At this point, Cooper does not even have a timeline for a decision. He said Wade Shows doesn’t have a drop dead date for a decision. There is a clause in their contract that has an exclusion for an epidemic.

“If there is an epidemic, neither one of us sues the other one,” Cooper said. “We just don’t know.”

Right now, the fair is still on for Oct. 6-10.

“Hopefully by that time things will be in a much better situation than we are now,” Cooper said.

School boards weigh options as state prepares for cuts

As Rome and Floyd County school systems question whether they’ll start back at the regular time next school year and to what extent their budgets will be cut — many unknowns are on the table.

State education officials got their first look Thursday at the budget cuts ahead for public schools and programs amid the coronavirus emergency. But they did not dive into specifics on whether staff furloughs or layoffs may be needed.

The Georgia Department of Education is facing across-the-board cuts of around $1.6 billion to all aspects of the agency, from state administrative offices in Atlanta to specialty programs like agricultural education to everyday basic classroom education.

Those cuts come as part of 14% spending reductions that all state agencies must propose to state lawmakers by May 20, as business closures and social distancing spurred by coronavirus look to put state revenues in a $3 billion to $4 billion hole.

The blow to some educational programs will be softened since the agency was already gearing up for the 6% budget reductions Gov. Brian Kemp ordered last summer for the fiscal 2021 budget, officials said Thursday at a State Board of Education meeting.

What those cuts mean, and how deep they will go, is up in the air. The final decision will be up to legislators once the governor issues revenue estimates. The legislature, which hasn’t been in session since early March, hasn’t passed a state budget and local school systems don’t know what their allocations will be.

Until a budget is passed and approved, both local school systems are operating under spending resolutions to essentially continue this past year’s budget.

The Rome school board approved its spending resolution Tuesday. It allows the expenditure of funds not to exceed a month’s worth of the current budget — approximately $5 million, Superintendent Lou Byars said.

They’re hoping to be able to get firm numbers from the state once the legislature passes Georgia’s budget and then they can plan for what is to come.

During the board’s caucus, Byars didn’t want to rule out any options, but he said the school system is in good shape financially.

School board members, however, still talked about measures such as staff furloughs, which are a possibility in the next school year. Byars told the board that, if they do take furloughs, he would like to limit the amount of student instruction time affected by the days off. He suggested they use most of those furloughs during pre- and post-year planning days.

The superintendent of the Floyd County school system, Jeff Wilson, told his board last week they were expecting the cuts and projected they’d lose approximately $10.5 million from their budget.

Some of the cuts will be defrayed by a federal funding allocation under the CARES — Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security — Act. Last week, Georgia school officials agreed to distribute around $411 million in federal funding to help local school districts.

Rome City Schools’ share will be $2,015,103 and Floyd County Schools will receive $2,005,542.

To manage the earlier 6% cuts, state education officials imposed a hiring freeze starting last October. They also restricted travel, clamped down on approving new vendor contracts and halted in-person staff training and professional development, among other measures.

But the previous cuts did not include the nearly $11.7 billion in funding the agency proposed to dole out for local school districts based on the number of students they enroll. Those funds take up by far the largest chunk of the state’s education spending and pay for bottom-line classroom programs and teacher salaries.

State officials expect to get more detailed rundowns next week from local school districts on how they plan to absorb the cuts. All aspects of their budgets — from personnel costs to contracts to facility rents and more — will be evaluated, officials said Thursday.

In local discussions, Rome school board member John Uldrick said he would be opposed to losing programs like music or art as a result of the state cuts — and several other school board members voiced their agreement. Floyd County school board members have also said they do not want to eliminate programs.

“These are incredibly challenging times and everybody’s got a lot of very, very important work to do the best we can for students, administrators and teachers throughout the state of Georgia,” said state board Chairman Scott Sweeney.

Jason Downey, also a state school board member, said he has fielded calls from people worried about extended furloughs and shortened school weeks. He urged his board to communicate clearly with the public as decisions are made in the coming weeks on how the cuts will affect local schools.

“This is like (the 2008 recession) and in many ways could be much worse,” Downey said. “We just need to be sure that everyone is well informed.”