Board of Ed Buys Buses, OKs More Funds for Cross-Country Track

Davis faculty and staff line up to be honored with board members at the B of E meeting on Monday. Davis won a "Beating the Odds" award from a state education agency for beating the state average in test scores. At far left is principal Josh Ingle, far right Schools Superintendent Jan Harris.

The Dade County Board of Education held its formal February meeting on Monday, with a preceding workshop last Thursday, Feb. 22. At those meetings, board members decided to buy some new buses, gave the nod to a change order that will add around $11,000 to the price tag of a much-discussed cross country track at Dade Middle School, and heard “State of the School” reports from the principals of Dade High and Davis Elementary schools

What they did not hear, at least in their public session, was anything about the school bus accident that left a 71-year-old Wildwood woman dead last week. The board held an executive, or behind-closed-doors, session to discuss personnel after the regular Monday meeting, but the resulting recommendations did not address what the system proposed to do about the bus driver who struck a pedestrian crossing 136 West at Trenton’s central intersection on Feb. 20, who later died at Erlanger of her injuries.

Neither did Jan Harris, superintendent of schools, make any statement at either meeting regarding or in fact acknowledging the accident. Questioned later, though, Dr. Harris provided the following statement about the bus driver: “She is on leave with pay until the investigation is complete.”

The driver was identified last week by the Georgia State Patrol, which is investigating the accident, as 61-year-old Angela Payne. GSP has completed an initial report stating that the empty school bus was turning left on a green light with a flashing orange turn arrow, but has now turned the matter over to its Specialized Reconstruction Team for further study—which GSP spokeswoman Felicia Speakman indicated may take a while. “A SCRT Case typically takes from about six months to about a year to be completed,” emailed Ms. Speakman.

Regular personnel actions approved at Monday's executive session included leave requests for Dade Elementary teachers Jessi McMahan and Bailey Reed; the hiring of Jill Brown as a substitute teacher; and extending paid days for the counseling staff, five for full-time and two and a half for half-time counselors. Affected staffers are James Emmett, Amanda Clark, Aaron Stanton, Cheryl Haynes, Ronnie Shelton and Tinena Bice.

Citizen Michael Scott (left), who appeared before the B of E in January to talk about internet access problems on Sand Mountain, put in another appearance on Monday to volunteer his services as armed guard at the schools in the wake of last month’s slaughter of high school students in Florida.

“I want to know my grandchild is safe,” said Scott. He described himself as a weapons-certified veteran with 23 years’ service as a local firefighter.

“We share your concern,” Dr. Harris assured Scott. She said that the school board and administration had also been shaken by the Florida shootings, had met with law enforcement officials about keeping Dade students safe, and had plans to meet with them further. “I’ll definitely bring up your suggestion to them,” she said

“We’ll get back to you,” said Gen. Bob Woods, District 3 board member, who also assured Scott the Florida killings had not gone unnoticed.

In the Feb. 22 workshop, Davis principal Josh Ingle reported on school security, saying each school had its own lockdown plan and that his had a trial session on Feb. 14. “We were able to close up some loopholes,” he said. Ingle said the schools will probably need to start having unannounced drills, and that a principals’ meeting with law enforcement and Dade 911 boss Alex Case was scheduled for March 2.

The board heard at both meetings from Dr. James Cantrell, its director of transportation, about both the school bus fleet and the matter of the Dade Middle School cross-country course. The track and a new access road had been extensively discussed last year, then abruptly dropped in the face of alarming cost estimates. This month, the board got another such: a $10,000 price hike in the cost of the track, then another $1000-plus for incidentals.

Dr. Cantrell explained that the cross-country course was now under construction but that the contractor had found so much rock along the course—“too many to move to one side or the other,” said Dr. C—that proceeding as planned seemed undoable. Since taking out the rock was deemed prohibitively expensive, it had been decided to build the course higher to go on top of the rocks. “Basically, the whole thing will slant,” said Dr. Cantrell.

That will cost the system another $10,000 over the original quote—$60,000 for initial excavation—plus additional pipes to avoid drainage problems with the raised-track scheme, which Cantrell said should cost something just over $1000. Board members questioned the cost, and did not look happy about it, but approved it after Cantrell said he didn’t think “we could have a workable track” otherwise.

​​(Photo: Dr. Cantrell in a file shot, driving a bus at Christmas)

Still sweating from round one, Cantrell then, as manager of Dade’s school bus fleet, jumped back into the ring to wrestle with the board for new vehicles. He had recently completed an inventory of the system’s vehicular array and come up with a plan for replacing Dade’s aged-out buses a few at a time. At the Feb. 22 meeting, he asked for four new 72-passenger buses; one 54-passenger special needs bus, equipped with ramps and other appurtenances and thus a bit more expensive; plus a new service truck to go out and fix buses broken down by the side of the road. Previously, explained Cantrell, “We’ve thrown a jack into an old van.”

The board questioned Cantrell closely. How many buses did Dade have? The answer was 23 buses for 20 routes. There were a couple of spares, but they and some of the older, regularly-used buses were 2000 models, now 18 years old. Really, said Cantrell, the board should start selling and replacing buses at 10 to 12 years of age.

Hadn’t she read, asked District 1 member Cindy Shaw, that the governor had a program right now for delivering new buses to the counties? Cantrell said he’d check it out, and at the Feb. 26 meeting agreed to lower his request from four to three new regular buses just in case Dade managed to score a bonus bus from the governor’s program. But he still got some argument.

“I get a little gun shy talking about three 72-passenger buses,” said the general. How’s about two? he suggested.

No, said Cantrell: “We need more than what we’re asking for.” He had really wanted seven, he explained.

In the end, Cantrell got approval for his three regular buses, plus the one special needs and the repair truck. Central Office provided the approved figures of $201,172.00 total for the three regular and $99,353 for the special-needs bus. Dr. Cantrell gave the price of $37,183 for the roadside repair vehicle.

Dr. C also said he was placing an RFP—request for proposals—to get bids for sealing all the school buildings against weather damage.

Financial director Paula Stallings gave a rundown of the school finances, assuring the board that revenues were coming in healthily. “We’ve now paid for all the Chromebooks, right?” the general asked her, referring to the 1600 Chromebooks the board had just purchased for $281,056 to bring the system up to a one-to-one student-to-internet station ratio.

Yes, said Ms. Stallings, and Dr. Harris in fact had the school system’s tech experts report on distribution of same. They said the units were already in heavy classroom use, and one of the tech specialists, Bill Bankston, said that students had been induced to sign a statement agreeing it was a privilege to use the Chromebooks and promising to take care of them.

In other matters, Bankston also said that his department was looking at LED signs such as the one at Dade High for the other three system schools, ones that were operated from cloud-based software so that they could updated from anywhere. And he said he was looking into a $1500 piece of technology that would allow bus drivers to fill out work orders for their vehicles online from home, so as to get needed repairs started more promptly.

In other business, the board voted yes to a resolution to take teachers’ jury-duty pay to subsidize paying for substitute teachers; approved Jatt Oil’s fuel bid of $2.555 per gallon for diesel fuel and American Paper’s bid for 440 cases of copy paper at $24.60 a case; and accepted Dade Middle School coaches’ request to improve their soccer field by doing the work themselves with hand tools.

At the Feb. 22 workshop, James Fahrney (right), newly transferred from principal of Davis School to principal of DCHS, gave a State of Dade High report:

Farhney said enrollment was down 25 percent at the high school since 2009. He talked about losing students to home schooling and seemed particularly concerned about the new online schools that lure students away from public school with deceptive advertising. They make online study seem easy, he said, but: “It takes a special kind of student to have the fortitude, the work ethic, to make that happen,” said Fahrney.

Later he elaborated that usually the kid who is self-motivated enough to finish schoolwork online is the same kid who knocks ‘em dead in traditional-style schooling anyway. The regular kind has more trouble, and often shows back up at the public school after striking out with home-based classes and losing a year or a semester of instruction time.

Another problem that Fahrney covered was absenteeism. “Last year nearly half of our kids had more than 10 absences,” said Fahrney. “Imagine 10 absences from work. You’d be fired.”

Graduation rate looked pretty good at 95 percent, up over the past, he said. “The graduation rate is an important number but it doesn’t really paint the whole picture,” said Fahrney.

He also looked at what happens after graduation. Right now, he said, 48 percent of DCHS students did something else higher-education-wise after leaving, if only a trade certification, which is better than the class of 2012 did--80 percent of those haven’t completed so much as a welding certificate, said Fahrney. “That’s one of those heartbreaking things,” he said.

He described quizzes given to students and teachers as part of an AdvancEd survey: Teachers felt they had few opportunities for parental engagement. Students felt their homework didn’t have real-world connection and that they needed more praise for their achievements.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Fahrney. But his message was determined and upbeat. He talked about the ZAP—“zeros aren’t permitted” initiative that would not permit kids not to turn in their work. “We’re gluttons for punishment with working with difficult kids. We know what’s at stake,” he said. “We bend over backwards.”

Farhney said 49 students are now registered for welding classes under the new Georgia Northwestern Technical College joint enrollment program, and more kids are also now taking AP, or Advanced Placement classes. The high school continues to work on its Freshman Academy to ease the transition for middle to high school, and Google Classroom was working out well as a teaching tool. “I’m actually using Google Classroom to teach my teachers,” he said.

Josh Ingle, new principal of Davis Elementary this year, having transferred there from being principal at DCHS, gave a similar report on his own school at the Monday meeting. Ingle, though, started from a more spectacular intro: All his staff had crowded into the boardroom to be honored for the “Beating the Odds” award Davis Davis had just received from CCRPI (College and Career Ready Performance Index), as depicted in the photo at the beginning of this article.

Davis students, explained Ingle, had outscored the state average in certain of the standardized testing. Basically, he said: “It goes back to what the teachers were recognized for a few minutes ago”—effective teaching.

Ingle showed a video in which students were taught math values with a deck of cards and also learned by hands-on work performing projects. He proudly exhibited August figures that showed only 20 percent of incoming students performing at or above grade level in August, then soaring to 58 percent in December.

In her own monthly report, Dr. Harris said attendance figures had been hurt by the terrible flu season—she’d caught it herself, she added—but percentage-wise was holding in the 90s. The school had duly received its accreditation after a recent review and was ready to proceed with building a strategic plan going forward, said Dr. Harris.

At the Monday meeting, the super honored Dr. Jeff Scott for his work in the system's AP, or advanced placement, program (right).

Board elections were a brief matter at the beginning of the Feb. 22 meeting--longtime chairperson Carolyn Bradford was reelected, but vice chair will change this year from Johnny Warren to Cindy Shaw.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. on March 19, at the B of E building in front of the high school on Highway 136 East. A workshop the preceding Thursday is the board’s usual habit.

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