These are the top stories from the past week.
Gwinnett schools giving full-time employees one-time $1,000 bonuses
Gwinnett County Public Schools teachers and many other employees of the system will get a Christmas present from the district in December.
The county’s school board voted Thursday night to approve one-time $1,000 bonuses for all active, benefits-eligible full-time employees of the district. District officials said the bonuses — officially called a “salary adjustment” — will be paid in one lump sum on employees’ monthly paycheck in December.
“For the third school year, our employees have done a remarkable job of addressing the needs of students during the pandemic,” GCPS Superintendent Calvin Watts said. “This one-time payment is one way we can say ‘thank you’ for their hard work and their commitment to our students and to this school district. Just as our employees are committed to the district, GCPS is committed to its employees and wants to be sure they know that they are appreciated and valued.
There are 21,500 GCPS employees who qualify to receive the bonuses, including teachers, administrators and support personnel. District officials said the salary adjustments are expected to cost the school system about $21.5 million to pay out.
The district stressed that the salary adjustments are a one-time payment only and that Thursday’s decision does not commit any funding from future GCPS budgets.
“GCPS employees are simply the best and we must continue to look for ways to appropriately compensate all of our employees,” Watts said. “With that in mind, I have asked for an evaluation of our salary schedules. As a district we want to ensure that each and every member of Team GCPS is appreciated and fairly and appropriately compensated for all that they do for our students, our schools, and our community. Gwinnett County Public Schools cares for its staff members and is committed to remaining an employer of choice that can continue to recruit and retain the highest quality of employees.”
Gwinnett schools' mask requirements will be based on COVID-19 transmission levels starting in January
Gwinnett County Public Schools announced on Wednesday that it will switch to a complex new face mask policy that will fluctuate based on transmission levels for COVID-19 in the second semester, which begins in January.
The shift means the district could go back and forth during the second semester on requiring masks. Other districts in metro Atlanta have switched to a “masks are optional” system as the Delta variant wave of the disease has faded.
“When the decision was made to implement the mask mandate in July, primary considerations were the high transmission rates in the community and the fact that our students were ineligible for the vaccine,” Superintendent Calvin Watts said.
“Since then, much progress has been made in terms of decreasing transmission rates of COVID-19 in our community and vaccinations are now available for individuals ages 5 and older. While I believe our GCPS mask requirement has helped us and our community to mitigate the spread of COVID, conditions have changed and we are at a point where we can and should revisit mask guidance.”
The new policy, which goes into effect in January, is that masks will be optional in schools when community transmission has been “moderate” or less over a period of at least two weeks. Masks will be required in schools when transmission is classified as “substantial” or “high.”
- By Curt Yeomans firstname.lastname@example.org
The district will post information on SchoolMessenger, and on the district’s website, on Jan. 3 to let parents and employees know what the community transmission level and mask rules for that week will be.
One thing parents need to keep in mind is that masks will still be required on school buses in the spring, however, regardless of what the transmission levels are, according to the district.
The community transmission classifications will be made by the Georgia Department of Public Health, and can be viewed at https://dph.georgia.gov/county-indicator-reports.
Gwinnett is currently listed as having “moderate” transmission, according to the state.
“Know that GCPS will continue to strongly encourage masks during times of ‘Moderate’ and even ‘Low’ transmission as part of our layered mitigation strategies, and move quickly to reinstate the requirement for masks should community spread rise to the ‘Substantial’ or ‘High’ range,” Watts said.
“Experience over the last 20 months has taught us how quickly things can change. This plan provides the flexibility for our schools to safely manage that change. Working together, we will navigate the COVID-19 situation through the spring, ensuring we address the needs of students and staff.”
The district also announced the following quarantine guidelines for people identified as a close contact with someone who has a confirmed or probable case of COVID:
♦ Quarantine for two weeks during periods when masks are not required — unless they are fully vaccinated or had COVID within the previous 90 days. They will learn asynchronously during quarantine, and will be able to access their assignments through either eCLASS or materials that were provided by their teachers.
♦ Follow current quarantine protocols during times when masks are required. That means students do not have to quarantine if they and the student identified as a confirmed or probable COVID case were both wearing masks when they were in close contact with each other.
Staff members will continue to follow current quarantine guidance, which means staff members who were within six feet of someone with a positive case for at least 15 minutes must go into quarantine — regardless of whether they wore a mask — unless they are fully vaccinated or had COVID within the previous 90 days.
Two people arrested at Gwinnett school board meeting Thursday night
Gwinnett County Public Schools police arrested two women in separate events at the county school board meeting Thursday night as the district operated a new security area for the first time at a board meeting.
Snellville resident Karen Pirkle and Suwanee resident Brenda Stewart were arrested at a security screening area outside the board meeting chambers, according to district spokeswoman Sloan Roach.
Roach said Pirkle was arrested on a criminal trespass charge. Roach said Pirkle was the woman who got into a stand off with Board Chairman Everton Blair over her refusal to wear a face mask at the October school board meeting.
That standoff ultimately resulted in the meeting ending early. The district’s spokeswoman said it also resulted in a “no trespassing” warning against Pirkle.
“After misbehavior at the last meeting, a criminal trespass warning was issued, and that’s a letter that basically explains you’re not allowed to come on GCPS property,” Roach said. “That was communicated with her and then she showed up tonight still attempting to come to the meeting, so she violated that order.”
There were two reports related to Pirkle’s arrest and two related to Stewart’s arrest that were filed by GCPS police that were sent to the Daily Post on Friday.
In one of the reports on Pirkle’s arrest, Officer R. Herndon wrote that Pirkle was allegedly “attempting to force her way past other officers in an attempt to enter the board room.”
The report states the criminal trespass warning was issued on Oct. 29, and that Pirkle was barred from entering the Instructional Support Center, which board meetings are held, for 12 months.
Herndon said in the report that Pirkle was told she would not be allowed to enter the ISC because of the criminal trespass warning, and that she allegedly responded by saying “watch me, watch me.” Herndon also said GCPS Executive Director of Administration and Policy Jorge Gomez had also asked Pirkle to leave the ISC property.
“Mrs. Pirkle continued to be uncooperative and refused to leave the premises so she was placed under arrest for criminal trespass,” Herndon wrote in his report.
Meanwhile, Roach said Stewart was arrested and charged with willful obstruction of law enforcement officers after she got into a scuffle with a police officer at the metal detector that all attendees were required to go through before they could enter the meeting chambers.
Thursday was the first time the district had used metal detectors at a school board meeting. Everyone who planned to attend the meeting had to go through the security checkpoint, which included officers looking in attendees bags.
“It’s my understanding that she came through the metal detector and didn’t stop ... she rushed through and didn’t stop,” Roach said. “She was stopped (by police) and directed back through.
“During a search of her bag, scissors were found. She was told she could not bring those into the meeting and grabbed for the scissors and struggled with the officer and the officer actually was scratched during the struggle.”
Stewart disputed the account of the events leading up to the arrest on Friday.
“There were many, many hands in the pot,” she told the Daily Post. “It was an abuse of power and a travesty.”
In one of two reports on Stewart’s arrest, Officer Felicia Churchill said Stewart had been behind Pirkle in line to go through the metal detectors and that she allegedly “placed her bag on the checkpoint table and ran through the metal detector to retrieve the arrestee’s belongings.”
Stewart said, however, that she did not run through the metal detector.
“I set my bag down, told the couple SROs at the front area of security that I was going to run grab Karen’s phone (who I had never met before) because she had said, ‘Can someone take my phone to my husband,’ “ she said. “I left my bag for security to check and tried to help someone who needed help — was being escorted roughly away in handcuffs.”
Another officer then told Stewart that she needed to return to the checkpoint and go through it again, according to Churchill’s report. Churchill said she began going through Stewart’s purse as she went back through the checkpoint, and found a small pair of scissors “that could potentially be used as a weapon.”
Churchill said she removed the scissors from Stewart’s purse and Stewart allegedly “became belligerent and attempted to grab for the scissors” while the officer’s finger and thumb were still in the loop of the scissors.
Churchill then ordered Stewart to “let go of my hand,” according to the report.
“Ms. Stewart continued to yell stating that they were knitting scissors and rounded on top,” Churchill wrote in the report. “Verbal commands were repeated to Ms. Stewart to remove her hand, but she continued and a scuffle pursued between Officer Baldwin, Officer Moody and I.
“During the scuffle, I was able to free my hand and gain full possession of the scissors.”
Churchill stated in the report that she “sustained redness to my thumb” as a result of the scuffle, and that “the injury was photographed” by another officer.
Stewart, however, said the police did not ask her to go back through the metal detector, and that she went back through it on her own. She also said the scissors were non-sharp children’s scissors.
“When I returned, SRO told me that ‘these can’t go in,’ ” Stewart said. “I reached to get scissors back and was then attacked by at least five SROs because of a pair of child scissors that were mine.
“The SRO could have told me that I couldn’t take them into meeting, but it wasn’t her property to take. I could take said scissors and depart building. I did not try and take the scissors and run into the meeting.”
Stewart also accused the GCPS police officers of not reading her Miranda Rights to her when she was arrested, and leaving her in handcuffs for three hours.
“The story is that our BOE, (Superintendent) and SROs created a (expletive) to serve as a deterrent for parents to participate in board meetings and education curriculum,” Stewart said. “The story is that SG, BOE and (Superintendent) want all parents to know that if they dare misbehave, they will go to jail and have their mug shot plastered all over the news. I showed up to the meeting to listen.”
The charges against Stewart and Pirkle are misdemeanor offenses and bond was set at $1,300 for each woman.
Buford City Schools Superintendent Robert Downs will retire in June 2022
Buford City Schools Superintendent Robert Downs announced on Thursday that he will retire at the end of the 2021-22 school year after more than three decades in education.
Downs’ plan is to officially retire on June 30, 2022, giving the Buford school board just over seven months to search for, and hire, a new chief for the district.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the Buford community in this capacity,” Downs said. “I have faith in our current administrative leadership to carry on Buford’s long-standing tradition of excellence when I retire. Even though I have announced my retirement, there is still so much to accomplish in my remaining time with the Buford Wolves.”
The Buford school board is expected to begin discussions on process for finding a replacement for Downs in the upcoming months, the school system said in a statement.
Downs has worked in education for 32 years, and served as Buford City Schools’ superintendent since January 2019. He replaced former Buford Superintendent Geye Hamby, who resigned in 2018 amid a racially-charged scandal over comments he allegedly made about Black people.
Downs graduated from the University of Georgia and worked at both the middle and high school levels before moving into district-level administration.
Sen. Clint Dixon picked to lead Senate study committee looking at nonpartisan school boards
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan announced on Thursday that state Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, will lead a study committee looking into nonpartisan school boards, building off legislation Dixon tried to push through this month targeting the Gwinnett County Board of Education.
Dixon pulled his bill targeting Gwinnett — Senate Bill 5 EX — for conversion to nonpartisan elections earlier this week. He announced at the time, however, that he would be shifting to instead look at partisan school boards across Georgia.
The study committee announced on Thursday will focus on that topic.
“Legislative proposals concerning education must be crafted in a delicate manner while encompassing input from leaders at all levels of government,” Duncan said. “With over 60% of Georgia’s school boards already operating as nonpartisan, and direct calls to remove partisan conflict from local education decisions, I look forward to seeing the outcome this committee produces through a transparent and collaborative process.”
The idea behind creating a study committee on nonpartisan school boards is to look at what the appetite will be for converting all school boards in Georgia that have partisan elections in November to a format where their members are elected in nonpartisan elections in the spring.
The study committee’s work will likely generate a lot of interest and scrutiny after Dixon’s bill targeting the Gwinnett school generated a lot of buzz, including a large amount of controversy over the way the bill was written and introduced in the state Senate.
Dixon did not consult Gwinnett County Public Schools officials, the county’s school board or the Democrats who make up the majority of the Gwinnett legislative delegation before he filed SB 5 EX. Dixon similarly did not consult his Democratic colleagues in the delegation, or officials in the county government, on another bill designed to expand the county commission.
In addition to Dixon, the committee’s membership will include Sens. Jason Anavitarte, R – Dallas, Chuck Payne, R – Dalton, and Lester Jackson, D – Savannah. That means the committee will be made up of three Republicans and one Democrat.
Duncan’s office said the study committee will meet periodically between now and the beginning of the 2022 Legislative Session, which will get underway in January, to hear from education stakeholders and other members of the general public about the issue of making school board elections nonpartisan.
Dixon previously told the Daily Post that he planned to hold at least two hearings on the matter, including one at the state Capitol and another in Gwinnett County.
Attendees at Gwinnett school board meetings must now go through metal detector
Gwinnett County Public Schools will begin making people who attend school meetings go through a security screening, including passing through a metal detector, before they can enter the meeting.
The school system announced the new security measure on Wednesday. The first meeting where the new measures will be in place is scheduled for Thursday.
"As this is the first month with these expanded safety measures in place, meeting attendees are encouraged to arrive early to provide ample time to go through the security check-in," district spokeswoman Sloan Roach said.
Other security measures that have been put in place at school board meetings since May include an increase in the number of school resource officers and other school system staff members who will be present in the meeting room to monitor the room as well as video monitoring of people entering the room.
The additional security measures come after a standoff between a parent and district officials over face masks at the October school board meeting, which resulted in the meeting ending early during public comment. A similar standoff between a large group of parents and district officials over face masks at the board meeting in May led to that meeting starting 40 minutes later than scheduled.
Gwinnett kicks off $125M Eastern Regional Infrastructure Project in Dacula area
Gwinnett County leaders recently kicked off work to install trails in eastern Gwinnett as well as water and sewer infrastructure for the property where the Rowen research-oriented knowledge community will be located near Dacula.
County officials broke ground on the $125 million Eastern Regional Infrastructure Project earlier this month. It is designed to provide five new public trails, two trailheads and water and sewer infrastructure on 8,500 acres in the eastern part of the county.
“I’m delighted to break ground on this historic infrastructure project, which will serve as the foundation for smart, environmentally conscious growth in this region of the county,” said Board Chairwoman Nicole Hendrickson. “This project harnesses the resources and capabilities of today in preparation for the opportunities of tomorrow.”
While the project will provide new infrastructure to more of eastern Gwinnett than just Rowen, that development will be a major beneficiary of the project. That is because water and sewer is one of the first pieces of infrastructure needed to make the research park-oriented mixed-use development come to fruition.
JDS Inc. will do the construction work for the project, which is funded by the departments of Water Resources and Community Services, as well as by the 2017 special purpose local option sales tax, which will pay for the trails.
The trails will be collectively called the Eastern Regional Greenway, which will provide access to trail systems that head into Barrow County. Gwinnett officials said the longterm plans are for the trails to connect to the planned Piedmont Parkway to the southwest, which will in turn give residents access to trail systems across metro Atlanta.
“We’re careful stewards of our taxpayers’ dollars, and we need to be stewards of this wonderful land to ensure that generations to come have ample opportunities to enjoy it,” County Commissioner Jasper Watkins said. “The ERI project will ensure this beautiful land can continue to serve the needs of our growing population efficiently and effectively while making a positive impact on our entire region.”
A website highlighting the project has been set up at GwinnettERI.com.
Gwinnett planning rapid construction turn lane improvements at three intersections
Gwinnett County officials are preparing to move forward with improvements at three intersections in the Lawrenceville area.
County commissioners approved a $359,580 rapid response construction contract with Ohmshiv Construction LLC earlier this month for the intersection improvements. The intersections are Sugarloaf Parkway at Duluth Highway, Old Norcross Road at Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road and Old Norcross Road at Cruse Road.
“The objective of all of our projects is to improve safety and mobility,” Gwinnett Department of Transportation Director Lewis Cooksey said. “We are all committed complete these improvements in a short timeframe.”
At the Sugarloaf Parkway and Duluth Highway intersection, the plan is to extend the northbound left turn lane on Sugarloaf Parkway. At the intersection of Old Norcross Road and Lawrenceville-Suwanee road, the plan is to extend the westbound left turn lane on Old Norcross.
Meanwhile, the plans for the intersection of Old Norcross and Cruse Road call for extending the westbound left turn lane on Old Norcross.
The improvements are being paid for with funding from the 2017 special purpose local option sales tax.
Gwinnett police investigating death at gas station in Snellville
The Gwinnett County Police Homicide Unit is investigating a death that occurred Tuesday night at the Citgo gas station located on Sims Road and Centerville Highway in Snellville, police said.
Gwinnett police said the victim was 21-year-old Taijuan Hall of Lithonia.
Shortly after 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Gwinnett officers were dispatched to a “person shot” call at 2671 Centerville Highway, Public Information Officer Hideshi Valle said. Upon arrival, officers located Taijaun, deceased from a gunshot wound, in the parking lot plaza of the gas station.
Valle said nvestigators are exploring all motives. Witnesses are encouraged to call GCPD Investigators or Atlanta Crime Stoppers with any helpful information. If anyone has any information to share in the case, they can contact GCPD detectives at 770-513-5300.
To remain anonymous, tipsters should contact Crime Stoppers at 404-577-TIPS (8477) or visit www.stopcrimeATL.com. Crime Stoppers tipsters can receive a cash reward for information leading to an arrest and indictment in this case.
Case Number: 21-093792
Standardized Gwinnett County Tag Office schedule starts Jan. 3
The Gwinnett County tag offices will have standardized hours starting Jan. 3, and Saturday hours will no longer be offered next year.
Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner Tiffany P. Porter made the announcement that, starting Jan. 3, all tag offices will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays, with Wednesdays extending the closing time to 6 p.m.
“As promised, I extended tag office hours to accommodate later visits,” Porter said. “However, I saw that there was a greater need for more accommodation from 8:30-5:30 weekdays. I’m also expanding the window for appointments from 9:30 to 4:30. Appointments are optional, but making one lets people skip the line.”
Porter said residents are reminded that they can skip the trip entirely by conducting business online, or, if an in-person visit is required, they can skip the wait by making an optional appointment in advance (see GwinnettTaxCommissioner.com for details and links.)
Walk-ins are always welcome, Porter said.
The Customer Service Center, Dealer, Mail & Fleet Division, and the Main Office at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center will continue to operate 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
Tag offices will be closed Nov. 25-27 for Thanksgiving, Dec. 23-25 for Christmas and Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 for New Year’s. During the holiday weeks, the Lawrenceville office will be open Mondays and closed Saturdays.
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