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Staff Editorials

Let’s avert crisis with school board and do so without upsetting apple cart of solid student performance

The situation with the school board and superintendent is still shy of crisis level, but has reached a point where something has to be done, if for no other reason than to calm the amount of divisiveness in the community.

For those blissfully unaware or under a rock, here’s the situation: in the past two years, two superintendents have been essentially fired with the board not providing even a whiff of the reasons for removal. Two weeks ago, a political group, Impact Pickens, presented a cache of texts mainly from the board chair to the current superintendent, but also to/from other board members, showing plans to get rid of the second of the superintendents as early as October and presenting an underhanded, cavalier approach to removing the leader who had only been hired months earlier.

The board shelled out more than $400,000 to buy Dr. Rick Townsend out of his contract in February and spent $178,000 to buy his predecessor Dr. Carlton Wilson out in December of 2020. Roughly $600,000 of tax dollars down the drain.

As a point to consider, in Georgia any employer, including a school board, may fire someone simply because they don’t like him. They may have had to battle over parting compensation, but as far as the laws and state agencies go, telling the past two superintendents “we don’t like the way you are running the schools, you’re fired” is legal. But even that didn’t happen, at least not publicly. The school board gets an “F” in public communication. There is no law that silences them - that is a tired and false excuse.

The history of our school board over the past 10 years is chock full of short tenures of both paid leaders and elected board members, political rifts, squabbling and backstabbing. To state the obvious, this has to change. Here is what we suggest, which falls short of Impact Pickens’ demands for three board members and superintendent to go.

First, we have in place the perfect body to deal with this, the grand jury. For those who need a civics reminder,  grand juries in Georgia were set up to investigate governments’ operations for any reason, not just criminal action.

Section 15-12-71 of Georgia code spells this out: “Duties of grand jury - the grand jury shall, whenever deemed necessary by eight or more of its members, appoint a committee of its members to inspect or investigate any county office or … the county board of education, or the county school superintendent or any of the records, accounts, property, or operations of any of the foregoing.”

This isn’t done often and it usually comes from the top down; a government official starts the process, but the power is with the people (the grand jurors). If you are among the current grand jurors, be active, tell the DA’s office and judge to convene your group and take an unbiased look at the school district predicament. 

The conclusion here (according to one legal expert familiar with grand juries who did not want to be named) would likely be limited to a report. It seems unlikely anything reported thus far rises to the level of criminal charges against anyone. But that report from an unbiased group with the power to summon people to speak could clear the air, set the record straight and offer recommendations to move ahead.

Second, we’ll cut to the chase -  board chair Sue Finley needs to resign. She was in charge when all hell broke loose. The school board meeting on January 18 was the nastiest gathering of any government group we have seen; never has a contingent of deputies been called in to secure an official gathering here in modern history. 

Just like the presidents of groups, coaches of teams, CEO’s and captains of ship, when your organization goes badly into the ditch, the leader has to go – if for no other reason than to lay groundwork for a new course.

In this particular case, Finley’s own texts add to our call for her resignation. They simply went too far in advocating and celebrating for a change in the superintendent position. 

With the departure of the board chair, the balance of power shifts dramatically to an even playing field. The board would then have two clear camps of two members each in regard to the superintendent. Bring in an independent fifth board member, (perhaps follow a grand jury recommendation) and immediately there is a new board dynamic and hopefully a chance to see if they can get traction to move forward together. This could include looking at the current superintendent’s position but giving him a fair chance to present his case.

The calls for three board members to resign along with the superintendent simply throws too much into turmoil. And based on our past history, the revolving door of board members and superintendents is the cause of the problems, not the solution.

Finally, we would like to end on a positive note, which may seem impossible, but it’s not. Pickens schools over the past decade have outperformed most similar school systems in academics. We beat our neighboring systems with graduation rate; our SAT averages are solid; our schools are safe; our graduates are succeeding; our teachers are well-paid by state standards and holding proper certifications. 

Despite the unceasing turf war at the central office, the student body, as a whole, is thriving. Of course there is always room for improvement but most students are well served. 

The most important thing our school system does (educate students), it is doing very well. For people who want to upturn the whole apple cart, don’t forget this.

Should the public trust county audits ever again?

The dust may be close to settling with the financial misdeeds un-covered in the magistrate court that went back at least two years. A 25-year employee of county government, Allen Wigington, pled guilty to numerous counts of improper use of the county credit card.

The former chief magistrate’s guilty plea makes it easier and simpler to call for action by county government without any concerns about influencing a jury or condemning Wigington before his day in court.

So, let us state clearly, it’s well past time for the county to look at what happened in Wigington’s crimes and be sure their house is in order. Have a crooked employee fool us once, shame on him, but if you don’t take actions to install safeguards then shame on us.

With his admission, there is no disputing that the former elected judicial official regularly took the county credit card on shopping sprees. As the investigation documents piled up, it was found that Wigington charged everything from hotel nights to mattresses to casual clothing to the county. 

The open records request of the magistrate’s credit card bill shows this wasn’t a devious, ingenious crime. In some cases Wigington used false receipts to hide misdeeds but in others, he made few attempts to hide the purchases. The amount and frequency of purchases at Amazon alone should have thrown up red flags galore. On many months, the magistrate court’s total credit card spending was half of all county credit card spending, roughly $4,000 a month on  Wigington’s card out of around $8,000 total for the all county departments. 

It stood out. Did no one notice until the warrants were taken?

Taxpayers have expressed disappointment in Wigington, who was a fixture in county politics for the past quarter century and was mostly well-respected. They have also expressed anger over a government employee living large ($40,000 a year or so) buying their electronic ear wax removers out of our tax money. People across the nation are already scornful of government at any level and cases like this stoke the fire.

Up until now, the people who have been surprisingly silent are the folks over at the county admin. building where those credit card charges were paid every month - the people who kept writing the checks for the illegal spending.

There has yet to be any statement from county government that they were appalled. Maybe they were holding off until the case was settled? 

But surely now our county commissioners and finance team over there will set the record straight. How did the exorbitant spending go un-noticed, un-reported, un-checked and un-stopped for the two years that the GBI and sheriff’s investigators found the constant improper use of the county credit card?

And do we have something set up to prevent it from happening again?

Keep in mind that the commission chair when this occurred is no longer in office and the chief financial officer in charge during that time is set to retire. So, our new commission chair can flip the page, but first, the public has the right for some answers.

We have questioned in this space before and restate it now, is the yearly county audit performed by an independent outside firm of any value? It sure let a whopper of a fish off in this case. Why should the public ever trust an audit of Pickens County government again? 

The cost of an independent auditor to answer some of these questions on behalf of the county government will be expensive. But public confidence that our government is intent to stopping these abuses of power is priceless.


What’s trending gives peek into what we are really interested in

Googling what’s trending may seem like a funny thing to do. But it’s perhaps the best way to gauge what people across the United States and the world are really interested in.

In the past week, seemingly the whole world, more than 10 million of us, were interested in the life of Britain’s Prince Philip. Britain’s longest-serving royal consort garnered more than 10 million Google searches following his death at the age of 99. Whether you are pro-monarchy or not, people across the globe felt the need to learn more about his life and 74-year-long marriage to Queen Elizabeth, according to Google trends. Who knows what keeps so many of us curious about the English royals, but in a BBC article one person leaving flowers outside of Buckingham Palace may have summed it up - “It’s just super sad” because Philip, represented “the kind of stability that’s so old-fashioned, it’s difficult to comprehend. He was a rock who brought integrity.”

Another 10 million of us searched “DMX,” according to Google trends. DMX died at the age of 50, half the age of Prince Philip. The rapper-actor and hip-hop artist behind songs “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and “Party Up (Up in Here),” died from a “catastrophic cardiac arrest.” The rapper, whose birth name was Earl Simmons, died after several days on life support. He was a multi-platinum artist who, according to the Associated Press, “struggled with drug addiction and legal problems that repeatedly put him behind bars.”

It’s interesting that two polar-opposites - Prince Philip and DMX - would garner the same amount of interest from around the world.

Next on the list of top Google searches last week was Hideki Matsuyama with over two million queries. If you aren’t a golf fan, you likely hadn’t heard of Matsuyama before last week. The 29-year-old won the Masters on Sunday, becoming the first Japanese man to do so. The Masters tournament itself had more than two million Google searches last week. ‘Phillip Adams,’ a former NFL player whom police say killed five people before killing himself also had over two million searches.

A lot of us are very interested in all things sports, as  ‘Wrestlemania 37,’ ‘Lakers,’ ‘Real Madrid vs. Barcelona,’ and ‘Real Madrid’ all had more than a half million searches last week. Not incredibly far behind, with over 200,000 queries each, was ‘UFC’ (Ultimate Fighting’s Fight Night) and NASCAR. From soccer and basketball to stock car racing and ultimate fighting, people love sports.  

People apparently love to laugh as British actress Carey Mulligan garnered more than 200,000 searches when she hosted the week’s Saturday Night Live episode. 

‘National Pet Day’ and ‘Ramadan 2021’ hit over 200,000 searches each. Reality star Nikki Grahame, who had publicly battled anorexia, also hit over 200,000 searches following her death last week at the age of 38. She was the author of two books about her eating disorder, Dying to Be Thin and Fragile.

Our searches reveal our interests and it seems we are intrigued when celebrities, both young and old, die. Sports - regardless of the individual sport - also holds fascination for us. 

While he didn’t hit as many overall searches, Atlanta Braves star Freddie Freeman reminded us what a class act he is - and got 50,000 google searches doing it. Freeman hits home runs often but when he hit a home run last week against Philly and a father and son wearing Phillies gear caught it, then kindly gave it to a young Braves fan wearing a Freeman jersey, the All-Star first baseman took notice. After the game, Freeman gave the father and son duo a ball autographed by both he and Phillies superstar Bryce Harper. Classy.

From a century-old prince, to rappers and sports celebrities, we can’t wait to see what catches the world’s attention next week. 


Hey Vern! Try a different vacation

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff Writer

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After half an hour driving through (and getting lost in) one of the largest, most beautiful cemeteries I’ve seen in my life we found it. Jim Varney’s grave in Section C-1, Lot Q. The headstone was glossy black with the iconic tragedy/comedy masks carved on top; several items were left at the base by fans who visited before we did. 

Our family hadn’t planned on being at Lexington Cemetery on Easter until we woke up in our horse-and-bourbon-themed hotel and I consulted my favorite quirky travel site, Atlas Obscura. With a husband who is an unapologetic Ernest P. Worrell fan (Varney is the actor/comedian who played Ernest in commercials and movies like Ernest Goes to Camp), I insisted. 

This unorthodox Easter-morning excursion was part of our unorthodox spring break vacation - a road trip wrapped entirely around an ancient effigy site in Ohio I’d read about years ago. I took my family hostage, away from the all-too-familiar places we usually travel. I booked a room in Lexington one night to break up the drive, then on to Peebles to see the Serpent Mound, then back to Cincinnati a couple nights. The only firm plan other than lodging was to see the mound - everything else would be impromptu. 

As we meandered from city to city and soaked in the newness of the landscape and culture – expansive and opulent thoroughbred horse farms in Lexington; rolling hills in Ohio that are different from the rolling hills here; the German influence in Cincinnati; the very first Kentucky Fried Chicken in Corbin; I couldn’t help but wonder why it took me all 39 years of my life to visit places that were a measly six-hour drive away. Like many families, we’d fallen victim to habit. 

I understand the desire for safety and predictability when we spend money to travel (we want to know we’ll have a good time, right?), but travelling to new places thrusts us out of the vacuum of the familiar, expands our worldview, and forces us to be around people who might not look like us or believe what we do – all of which are beneficial and exciting. Todd B. Kashdan, professor of psychology and a senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, discusses the concept in a Harvard Business Review article, “The Mental Benefits of Vacationing Somewhere New.” He argues that travel to the unfamiliar is an opportunity for self-development, and that while he understands the temptation to “default to the same vacation each year” he believes travel should be routinely used “to get out of your comfort zone, expose yourself to uncertainty, and eschew rest for exploration and learning. The result is personal growth — greater emotional agility, empathy, and creativity.”

His article was inspired by an international trip to Sri Lanka, but just like our trip to the Ohio Valley succeeded in doing for my family he believes people can get the same benefits by “traveling closer to home — to new states, cities, and even households, from urban to rural, north to south, east to west. As long as you’re spending time in an unfamiliar environment, with people whose backgrounds and belief systems don’t entirely match yours, you’re succeeding at stretching yourself.” 

The tendency to perceive ourselves as separate from others - and the polarization, intolerance, and violence that can result - comes in part from living like islands, isolated from and/or weary of things that are different. 

Obviously, Kentucky and Ohio aren’t “exotic” in the classic sense of the word – and my teenagers said they were as equally underwhelmed with the Serpent Mound (“I thought it’d be bigger”) as they were with Jim Varney’s grave (“Who?”) – but it was fun and unique and different, and they had an amazing time. It will stand out when they get older; not blur together with the same old beach and mountain trips. 

So this year, or next if you’ve already made plans, consider getting out of your stale vacation routine and try something new. It might not be familiar, but it’s guaranteed to be an experience….“Know what I mean?” 

Time to pick up the pace with water/sewage expansion

With a growth wave pushing into north Georgia, it is time for the cities of Jasper, Talking Rock and Pickens County to get serious and get results with plans to expand their water/sewage infrastructure. [Nelson is grouped with Cherokee County].

There has been talk ad infinitum of the need for sewage and expanded water infrastructure to accommodate growth “when it arrives.” 

But, the growth wave is here now and the lines aren’t. This sums up the condition where we find ourselves and it won’t be easy, cheap or quick to correct. Further distressing, we aren’t confident that either the county or city even has solid plans to address the needs.

Among the challenges: 

• While there is some septic in Talking Rock, they need sewage to expand their downtown, suddenly a hot spot with the innovative brewery and forthcoming restaurant in the old train cars. 

• On the other side of the county, package plants or some type of limited sewage has been discussed at the Foothills commercial area even longer. Everyone agrees it is needed but it never gets from planning tables to lines in the ground.

• The county has a planned new water supply in Grandview Lake, which is a big deal as it is the first homemade (so to speak) source to be developed since the old Tate system, but the problem once again is it’s not under construction.

• The city of Jasper needs to expand their sewage plant and again the refrain, it’s in the planning/funding stage. 

• Recently at a county planning commission meeting there was discussion of how the county couldn’t serve a proposed 78 home subdivision’s water needs any time soon. They want to, eventually, but again, just aren’t ready.

• Highway 515 is reportedly well-served with water and sewage, but you get  very far from the fourlane and it is still wells and septic tanks.

We got beat to the punch by growth. People want water and in places they need sewage -- not more sets of plans. 

It’s unclear what effect will result by continually not being ready.

One might, perhaps a little naively, think “if you don’t build it, the crowds won’t come.” Not providing sewage and water might shut off the growth. The lack of ready-to-use infrastructure has been theorized as one reason Jasper got left behind with the last boom cycle in north Georgia.

But, failing to develop proper utilities as a means to control growth isn’t a sound strategy – kind of like a kid saying “if I don’t bring a notebook, the teacher can’t assign homework.” More likely, we’ll still get the growth that finds its way here in an uncontrolled, unorganized, unplanned manner. Or else we’ll get people still building and counting on future water/sewage that’s always being planned but not delivered. And one day, something, like a prolonged drought, will happen and it will be a full-on disaster.

Assuming that burying our heads in the sands isn’t the strategy, we encourage our county and city leaders to pick up their pace dramatically. A good start would be an open, public process looking at whether a joint county/city water and sewage authority makes sense. Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. It works other places, but every place is different, so it might not be optimal here. It is way past time for this option of combining all the water/sewage resources under a non-political authority gets the attention it deserves.

We’d like to see the city and county leaders appoint a study group with a tight deadline to look over the prospects of joining forces and then publicly present their conclusions ASAP. 

Regardless of how a joint approach plays out, we’d urge our government leaders to get it in gear with sewage and water expansion.