School Board Responds to Questions

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Pickens County seems to have gone viral after the creation of the website The controversial website appears to channel the voices of dissent over the school systems alleged problems into an anonymous forum. FYN has been hearing rumors of intimidation, ethics violations and fund misuse for months with no solid leads.Website administrator Mark Miller told us last week he has stepped forward and created the website so those who are affected or disenchanted may speak out without fear of repercussion. Those complaints were addressed in a previous story (please see Truth, Fiction or Dirty Politics?)

Following the questions raised on the website, FYN submitted queries to the school board and the superintendent. Dr. Lula Perry has not responded despite FYN asking for at least a response that they didn’t intend to address the issues.

During the school board meeting last week Dan Fincher stated that if he feels the questions were originated from Miller himself he would not answer them and FYN has not received an answer. Likewise, Peggy Andrews has not submitted answers but has reached out with a plea of an extension as she has experienced a family medical issue that requires her attention.

However, Wendy Lowe, Byron Long and Mike Cowart have all answered at least a portion of the questions for the citizens and system employees. In an attempt to not misconstrue or misinterpret their answers they will be presented in their entirety in this article.

1) By hiring Dr. Perry, this group alleges that the contract defrauds the system by “double-dipping”. It also has been pointed out that Dr. Perry’s contract pays her through a vehicle, the gas for the vehicle, a $1700/month residential allowance on top of her paycheck… a substantial amount more than the roughly $119k she made as a full-time superintendent in Jeff Davis County. Do you not feel her drawing both her retirement plus being paid an amount much higher than her previous pay is a misallocation of the public’s funds for someone who only works part-time? Please explain your position on the contract.

Wendy Lowe offered the following chart:

Perry’s Salary

Byron Long:

“The spreadsheet that you have should clarify some of the questions about the superintendent’s contract and the actual dollar figures. (Please see Lowe’s answer in the previous paragraph.) As for the ‘fraud’, I am attaching a document from the Teacher Retirement System in Georgia.(TRS document, please view here: WorkinginRetirement_Web.pdf) This document explains what individuals who are retired can legally do as a retired teaching professional. A retired superintendent can come back to work at any time at a maximum of 49% salary plus 3 months at full pay. In order to come back to a position as a full time employee, the person has to be retired for more than 12 months. In our case, Dr. Perry had not been retired for more than 12 months so we had to get a waiver from the State to allow her to take this position full time.

As for anyone that feels that is ‘double dipping’, do you feel that way about everyone that was fortunate enough to work for a company that offered a pension plan? Is the complaint only for educators who want to work again? What about retired military veterans? Should they have to forfeit their military retirement benefits just because they join the civilian work force in a full time position? Dr. Perry paid into the TRS (Teacher’s Retirement System) just like every other educator in the state of Georgia. She is entitled to her pension just like every other educator that puts in their years of service. Our school system is paying her for the service that she is providing. Whatever amount she is drawing from her retirement is not a factor.

As for transparency, I have attached a copy of the article from the Pickens Progress from January 2014 which discusses the superintendent’s salary at the time the contract was issued.”

Superintendent Article

Mike Cowart:

“Dr. Perry and the BOE I feel have been transparent about her contract. It was published in the paper and I think the media was given a copy of the contract at the board meeting when it was approved. I could be wrong I’m going on memory.

The allegations that we or she was double dipping or only have a part time superintendent is just not the case. First she paid into teacher retirement all those years before retiring and other income from someone other than Pickens BOE does not come into play in my opinion. What does come into play is the fact that the stakeholders wanted a superintendent that lived in Pickens and that was part of our community. I think we can all agree that has been accomplished. The second factor that comes into play in my opinion is that we have hired a highly trained and experienced superintendent with an excellent reputation throughout the state. The third and a very important factor is the compensation package for her and the fact that we saved the taxpayers 77,240.04 dollars from 2013 to 2014 with the difference that was paid to Dr. Desper and that’s with all the compensation factored in. From 2013 to 2015 years its projected to save the taxpayers 46,708.08 dollars. We also contacted TRS to make sure everything we were proposing was legal and in fact it was and they gave us a waiver. TRS has different rules for retired certified personnel and classified personnel.”

2) Regarding the budget, they allege there was an increase from state funding of more than $800k last year which was sharply contrasted by your presentations to the public, teachers and the media that you’ve been cut substantially. Can you say why they have that perception or was there something lost in translation?

Lowe did not address the question. Long’s answer:

“At this point, I am told that the numbers for the previous year’s budget shortfalls are being gathered. With the economy in Georgia over the past several years, I am not really sure who they are trying to fool. No one’s budget has increased. I honestly do not think that the members of the group distributing this information really have the perception that the budget increased. I may be giving them too much credit but I really do not think that they are that naive or ignorant. I believe that they are only publishing the pieces of information that support their agenda.”

Cowart said:

“The state funding is misleading at best. The state added a significant amount of money that the school system had to pay for insurance benefits. We actually did not get an increase in funding of 800k as it was taken away in other areas of state funds. Amy (Smith) can explain this better than I can write it in a response email.”

3) It is stated that the central office staff salaries are continually increasing out of control. Statistics from show an increase of central office salaries of $116k from 2012. Can you state why those salaries changed if the budget is so tight that school programs are being cut, yet central office staff are receiving raises?

Lowe provided the following charts, in order of presentation to be considered as a whole:

Long replied:

“The information this group has published on central office salaries is very confusing and incorrect. Not only because of the many spelling mistakes but due to the employees on the list. If someone is going to criticize the size of a central office staff, you would think that they would first verify who worked in the central office. On the spreadsheet that you have been given (see Lowe’s chart above), the salaries of the employees on this group’s list have been broken down. The spreadsheet actually corrects the issues with their list.

I have been continually criticized by this group for supporting the need for the central office staff. From their comments, it appears that if they were in charge, they would eliminate the entire staff. They try to paint the perception that the central office staff is complete overhead and do not provide any value to a school system. If that is the case, who should run the lunch programs, maintain the buildings or compile all the data for the multitude of mandated federal and state reports. When the auditors show up from the state to look at our federal programs or financial records who do they go see? When SACS review time comes around again, who will compile that massive amount of data to ensure that our system remains accredited. Who will maintain all the mandatory records for our Special Education…………….

I have to assume that if this group wants to eliminate the central office staff, that means that they want to shift all this work down to the school level. That sounds great but the feds and state are still going to want their information whether there is a central office or not. I guess that means their plan would be to add more staff at each school? Well, judging by their comments, they are not too keen on adding staff that is not going directly in the classroom. Then, it appears that all the work would have to be to split between the teachers at each school? The teachers are already stretched thin with all the things that they are required to do outside of actually teaching children. That seems like a strange plan. Maybe there is another direction that I am missing? I probably need to stop before I get the teachers thinking that this group really does not have their best interest or the best interest of the kids at heart?”

Cowart stated:

” I believe that you have been given the correct numbers for the central office by now and know that the published report on the website was very misleading.”

4) The group states that the promotion of Sherry Martin was not warranted and sends a controversial message. They state that her daughter’s involvement with students, then her subsequent promotion sends the message that you have no problem with sexual offenders because of her seemingly baseless promotion. It is also said she is a main instigator of instilling fear and intimidating employees. Was she promoted based on her ability to produce those results as they think? They are stating that it certainly wasn’t performance based as her former school was failing, in the following quote: “Her performance as a principal was the worst in the county. Yet, this Board did not renew some of the other principal contracts and promotes the one failure. This makes no sense.” Can you defend her promotion and reasoning behind it?

Lowe has not answered but Long offered:

“This group might want to try and find a good lawyer if they continue down this path. Although the 1st amendment does ensure freedom of speech, accusing Sherry Martin of being a sexual offender could possibility result in a defamation of character issue.

The attack on Sherry as a principal is very interesting as well. The claim is that she was promoted although she was the worst principal in the county. There is a problem with that allegation. I have to assume that they are referring to the CCRPI numbers recently released by the state. At the time she moved into her current role, the only numbers available would have been the 2012 data. That data shows her school as the #2 elementary school in the system. This group is apparently not aware that the numbers from the state are a year behind. The current data does show that her old school is the lowest of our elementary schools. No one could have known that the 2013 numbers were going to drop at the time she moved into her new role.

The main purpose of the position that Mrs. Martin moved into is to be the Director of Federal Programs. As a board member, we do not interview or select individuals for positions. We either vote to approve or not to approve the recommendation. When Mrs. Martin was recommended to replace Susan Reeves, I do not remember anyone saying that her effectiveness as a principal was a factor in their decision. Due to her years of work in Title 1 schools, the selection committee felt that she had more experience working with Federal Programs than any of the other applicants.

If this were not more than just an attack on Mrs. Martin, I believe the question that more people would be interested in would be to find out what is being done to improve Harmony’s scores. That information can be found on Harmony’s website in their School Improvement Plan. In fact, every school in the system is making adjustments to try and improve. Just like with Harmony, you can find the information in their School Improvement Plans as well.”

Cowart didn’t want to participate saying:

” Sorry but I don’t talk about personal attacks that I feel are being carried out in a unfair manner.”

5) The website also shows the number of executive sessions seem to coincide with subsequent votes that should have had discussions in open meeting, not in a closed session. Can you please see the following link and tell me if there is any validity to the complaint?

Lowe answered with a chart showing the budget meetings and dates

Additionally she stated:

“We did two approvals a tentative and the final based on everything discussed is these meetings that were open to the public. The final approval was required to be in a formal meeting. There was nothing left to discuss at this point, as we had already had the discussions.”

Long said:

“The recognition of the kids at the first of the meetings is my favorite part of the board meetings. Without a doubt, the executive sessions are my least favorite part of the meetings. I would have to look back through all the meeting agendas since I have came on the board but there have been very few that did not have an Executive Session listed on the agenda. The official language that is read before going into an executive session defines the legal purpose of the session. Basically, in short form, the only things that can be discussed in executive session are personnel issues, litigation issues pending litigation or land transactions. So yes, there have been a lot of executive sessions. It is unfortunate but it is what is required by law to discuss those items. Contrary to what is mentioned on the website, there are current litigation issues that have been going on since before I came on the board. Just to get an update on a current lawsuit or a pending lawsuit, it has to be done behind closed doors. There seems to be no shortage of lawyers looking to sue a school system. But, as far as I can remember, the only votes that have come after an executive session have been on personnel? I am not sure what other votes they might be referring? Any issues with personnel cannot be discussed in open meetings.”

Cowart offered:

“Executive sessions are unfortunately necessary. We follow the letter of the law while in executive session and only discuss personnel and litigation.”

6) Another source accuses Mrs. Lowe of somehow underhandedly receiving iPads for the Joy House that the system could have used within the schools. This person also states she has intimidated teachers by making it known that absences by teachers past a certain number of days means an automatic unsatisfactory evaluation. Is this not beyond the board’s legally stated functions? Is there any validity to the charges or is there an explanation as to why this person is under this impression?

Cowart did not respond.

Lowe answered the question previously in a separate article, please view here:
Joy House iPads

Long responded with the following:

“This is yet another attempt to make something out of nothing. I am attaching the article from the Pickens County Progress where they looked into this allegation in May of 2013. (Please see pickensprogressmay23page17A.pdf) The Joy House, along with other organizations in the community that service ‘neglected and delinquent’ children, can apply for funds through the Title 1 program. As the article explains, if the Joy House did not apply for the funds, the money simply would not exist. The money used to buy the equipment for them along with the other organization did not take money away from the Pickens County School System.

When I came on the board, we were made aware of an issue with teacher attendance. In a teacher’s contract, they are allowed several days off during the school year in the form of sick days or professional days. Once a teacher goes past that allowed number, their pay is docked. There were several that were habitual offenders who were getting their pay docked every year. The kids were the ones that were losing out in this situation. As a board, our only option to curb the trend was to make a policy change for the employees’ attendance. I am not aware of any list that was given to board members with names of teachers that were getting their pay docked. All we were given were the numbers. I am not sure why Mrs. Lowe was singled out on this issue? This was an issue before the entire board.”

In reference to the iPad issue and the allocation of Title I funds, Sherry Martin, Director of Federal Programs, explained that any district which seeks these funds must provide all institutions of learning serving Pickens County children the opportunity to apply for a portion of this funding. So every private school, every school serving delinquent or neglected children have eligibility to be considered. A number of them decline but the Joy House, the Good Shepherd Ranch and the Appalachian Children’s Center all applied. When the state conducted their counts of children for the application process, both the Good Shepherd Ranch and the Joy House qualified. Upon finding no students at that time at the shelter they didn’t receive funding. Therefore, no funding was “taken away” from the Pickens County School system.

Please see the following links for further information regarding the program:

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