Across the education landscape of Bartow County, 2017 was a year filled with retirements and resignations of key personnel, new buildings going up and legal situations unfolding.
Two of the biggest headlines came in the last quarter of the year, when both school superintendents announced exactly two weeks apart that they would retire at the end of the current school year.
Bartow County Superintendent Dr. John Harper went public with his intentions at the Sept. 25 school board meeting after submitting a letter to board members in May indicating his plans to retire at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
“This will complete my 49th year in education,” said Harper, who came to the 13,000-student system more than 10 years ago as the associate superintendent. “Ten years in one place as a superintendent is an awfully long time so let’s bring some fresh ideas in and continue what we’ve done here to improve instruction for our children.”
On Oct. 9, a mere 14 days later, his Cartersville counterpart, Dr. Howard Hinesley, made the same announcement during his system’s monthly school board meeting.
Hinesley, 70, said he notified the school board last fall of his intentions to step down as head of the 4,000-student system at the end of his current contract, and he turned down a subsequent offer of another three-year contract.
“I will be forever grateful for the confidence you had in me when you hired me in March of 2005,” he told board members. “I know you were concerned that I might not be a good fit because I came from such a large system [Pinellas County, Florida], but I hope that I laid those fears to rest. I sincerely appreciate the support I have received during my 12-plus years here as your superintendent.”
At the end of the meeting, board members followed their succession plan and named Cartersville High Principal Dr. Marc Feuerbach as Hinesley’s successor.
Dial said Hinesley had wanted to retire three years ago, but board members convinced him to accept one more three-year contract, which gave them time to create a succession plan to groom his replacement.
In March, the board began talking with Feuerbach, who was hired as the high school principal in July 2014 in hopes he would be the next superintendent, about their collective long-term plans.
Feuerbach, 37, signed an employment contract Nov. 13 that will officially make him the new head of the system July 1, 2018, and board members unanimously approved it at the regular business meeting that night.
“I’m very, very excited, honored and humbled about the opportunity and appreciate the confidence the board is putting into me,” Feuerbach said.
According to his three-year contract, which will begin July 1, 2018, and end June 30, 2021, his annual base salary will be $150,000 — up from his principal’s salary of $126,480 — and he will be required to work at least 240 days each year.
In another resignation bombshell, Linda Benton, who had been president of the Cartersville School Board since 2000 and had served on the board for 23 years, unexpectedly announced her retirement, effective immediately, at the July board meeting.
“It’s not an easy decision to make, but it’s the right one,” Ms. Benton said. “It’s the right decision, and I know that the board … will be in good hands.”
The board unanimously approved appointing former board member Tim Chason, whom Ms. Benton recommended, to finish her term, which expires in December 2019.
As vice president since 2005, Kelley Dial, a board member for 17 years, succeeded Ms. Benton as president.
The school board honored Ms. Benton at its last meeting of the year by creating the Linda Benton GateKey Community Service Scholarship to help GateKey students who go above and beyond to serve their community.
At its December meeting, the Bartow County School Board launched a nationwide search for its next superintendent, hiring King-Cooper and Associates in Thomaston as its superintendent search firm.
Applications for the position will be accepted until Jan. 29, and board members anticipate conducting first- and second-round interviews in February and March.
By mid-March, they plan to announce as many as three finalists and to choose one of those finalists to be the new superintendent by late March.
In the spring, a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former administrator against the Bartow County School District was settled for $251,000.
Dr. Elizabeth “Buffy” Williams, formerly the executive director of elementary curriculum for the district, filed a complaint under the Georgia Whistleblower Act on April 7, 2016, in Bartow County Superior Court, alleging she was retaliated against after reporting sexual harassment by Superintendent Dr. John Harper and a former school district principal.
On behalf of Williams’ lawyer, Kimberly Worth of Thrasher Worth LLC in Atlanta, attorney Grady Thrasher said settling the case instead of going to trial was in the best interest of the client because it would “avoid putting Ms. Williams through the turmoil and personal strain of protracted litigation that would have forced her to relive the very serious allegations of her complaint.”
A school district spokeswoman said settling the lawsuit was “not an admission or verdict of guilt but instead the most economical path for the insurance provider.”
Harper declined to comment on the lawsuit or the settlement, but he denied Williams’ claims in his response in the lawsuit.
In August, Cathy Elizabeth Gayton, a former accountability specialist for the Bartow County school nutrition department, was arrested and charged with 60 counts of theft by deception.
Gayton turned herself in to the Bartow County Jail after allegedly admitting to campus police that she illegally wrote 60 checks totaling $13,375 to herself from the school district’s nutrition department account between January 2015 and July 2017.
All 60 counts against Gayton, who was fired July 27, were misdemeanors since each check was less than $300, according to the incident report.
In October, Bartow County School System Police Chief Dan Knowles resigned after being placed on paid administrative leave amid an investigation into an incident in which he said he was hit by a vehicle while directing traffic at Cass High School one rainy morning.
Due to Knowles and the driver of the SUV giving conflicting statements about the incident, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation launched a probe into the alleged accident at the request of Bartow County District Attorney Rosemary Greene, according to the GBI.
Knowles was placed on paid administrative leave pending the results of the investigation, but Superintendent Dr. John Harper felt it was “in the best interest of Bartow County to accept a letter of resignation from Knowles,” a school district spokeswoman said.
At its December meeting, the school board named his replacement, promoting Randall Burch from interim director of campus police to director of campus police.
In November, 18-year-old Cullen Casey Schmidt was sentenced to five years probation for hiding his iPhone in a school restroom and locker room and recording females in various stages of undress in February 2016.
The former Adairsville High School student, who was sentenced in Bartow County Superior Court after pleading guilty to six counts of invasion of privacy, also must pay a $1,000 fine, complete 40 hours of community service, undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation and follow through with any treatment recommendations, according to
Chief Assistant District Attorney Mickey Thacker.
The court agreed to sentence the teenager as a first offender, he added.
In April, Georgia Highlands College broke ground on a new 52,000-square-foot academic building at the Cartersville campus.
GHC received $22.5 million in state funding — $2.2 million for design, $17.7 million for construction and $2.6 million for equipment — for the building, which will include spaces for laboratories, classrooms, lecture halls and study rooms.
Increasing enrollment had made it necessary for the college to pursue funding for new construction, especially an academic building with a focus on STEAM-based — science, technology, engineering, art and math — areas of study at the Cartersville site, which is home to roughly 2,000 of the college’s 6,000-plus students, according to President Dr. Don Green.
The new building is expected to be completed by next summer.