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Sheriff's seat undergoes rare changes

ABERDEEN – Following a string of unfolding developments, who will serve as Monroe County’s sheriff for the remainder of the year, and election term, has changed and who will fill the seat beginning in January was answered last week.

The domino effect of changes surfaced early in the afternoon Aug. 20 following Cecil Cantrell’s resignation letter hand delivered to chancery clerk Ronnie Boozer, which was effective immediately.

“As sheriff of Monroe County, I have worked with a lot of wonderful people. I have dedicated the last eight years to the safety and well-being of the citizens of Monroe County to the best of my ability. After much prayer and consideration, I have decided to submit my resignation as sheriff of Monroe County as of August 20, 2019. I wish the best for Monroe County in the future,” said board of supervisors president Billy Kirkpatrick in reading Cantrell’s letter during Aug. 23’s meeting.

The resignation stemmed from an affidavit sent to county attorney Candy Blalock from the Mississippi State Auditor’s Office. The state agency concluded its findings from an investigation of a video showing a Monroe County Work Center inmate assembling “Re-elect Cantrell” campaign signs. The video surfaced on Facebook in early July, but the affidavit, alleging Cantrell’s involvement, stated the incident occurred on or about April 12.

“There was a misdemeanor charge that could have resulted from the investigation. There was an affidavit prepared. If you have a charge against a public official, the affidavit cannot be filed until after there’s a petition for a probable cause hearing, and a circuit [court] judge has to hear that,” Blalock said during Friday’s board of supervisors meeting.

Blalock said in communicating with the state auditor’s office and the auditor’s office communicating with Cantrell’s personal attorney, it was determined it was in the county’s best interest for him to resign.

She sent a press release after the supervisors meeting stating the auditor’s investigation determined the legitimacy of a video showing the inmate assembling signs, which is a violation of Mississippi Code Annotated 47-5-137, which states inmates cannot be used as servants by an employee of a correctional facility or by any person in an individual household.

If Cantrell had been found guilty of the offense, it would have carried a $337.75 fine, according to Blalock’s press release. It continued to state the decision for Cantrell’s resignation would result in the state auditor’s office having no interest in pursuing the misdemeanor charge.

In 1951, Joe Monaghan resigned as sheriff after being accepted to the FBI Academy, and his wife, Martha, was named interim sheriff to served the remainder of his term. To Boozer’s knowledge, no other sheriff in Monroe County history has resigned.

Hours following Cantrell’s resignation, District 1 Supervisor Joseph Richardson confirmed Monroe County Chief Deputy Curtis Knight would take over the leadership role of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office until the board voted to approve the interim sheriff to serve the remainder of Cantrell’s unexpired term.

Following a 20 minute-long executive session Friday morning, supervisors approved for Knight to continue serving as interim sheriff following a motion by District 4 Supervisor Fulton Ware and a second by District 5 Supervisor Hosea Bogan. Following a motion by Richardson and a second by Ware, sheriff-elect Kevin Crook was approved as chief deputy effective immediately.

The morning after Cantrell’s resignation, Andy Hood, the Republican contender in the sheriff’s race on the November ballot, withdrew.

“I never had any desire to run against Kevin. He’s a fine Christian man who can put a new set of eyes on that department. I think he’s the best man for the job,” Hood said.

For the Aug. 6 Democratic primary, Crook defeated Cantrell and Kennedy Meaders by receiving 50.82 percent of the vote.

“This is not a matter this board did not take extremely serious. After much discussion with all of the parties involved, and I think I can say, without reservations, we all agreed that this is the best way to get from where we are to end this term. I’d like to tell the public out there that Curtis Knight has always been a rock in the sheriff’s office. I don’t think anyone around this board or anyone at the sheriff’s office has any reservation about Curtis’ ability to do this,” Kirkpatrick said during the supervisors meeting.

Crook will be sworn in as Monroe County’s 44th sheriff Jan. 6 when the new term begins. He said, given the circumstances, the supervisors’ action presents a unique situation.

“I trust Curtis and work well with him and I think he deserves to be in the position. I look forward to working with him and working for him,” he said. “We can cast a vision for where we’re going in January. We get four months to cast that vision in that new direction and allow people and employees of Monroe County Sheriff’s Department to see that direction and understand as a heads up if positions may or may not be there under the new direction.”

Knight thanked the board and Crook for trusting in him to do the job.

“I’d like to assure everyone, the public, this board, Kevin that we will have a smooth transition, and things will work out better,” Knight said.

Knight will have full authority of the MCSO as interim sheriff for the remainder of this term.

“If you need the sheriff’s office, just call them, and they’ll be there,” Kirkpatrick said.

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Monroe County EPA member meeting ends with no agreement, board member resigns

BECKER – After nearly three hours of speeches, power point presentations, confrontations and the abrupt resignation of a board member, members of the Monroe County Electric Power Association (MCEPA) left the Becker Community Center Aug. 20 without the agreement they wanted from their board of directors to take actions toward providing broadband internet services for their communities.

Specifically, what members of the cooperative, along with Mississippi Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, wanted was for at least three board members to sign an agreement that would allow for three provisions: the formation of an 11-member advisory board of cooperative members to research broadband options, an amendment to the MCEPA charter to allow for the sale of broadband services and to authorize a second feasibility study.

“The future of our area depends on whether action is taken tonight, but inaction is a ‘No.’ The world is passing your children and grandchildren by. It’s disappointing that we have to hold this meeting,” said Presley, who later added, “The window on grant money will soon close. Will the last person shut out the lights when you leave Monroe County? I am calling on the board to pass this special notice to get action.”

In January, Gov. Phil Bryant signed off on a bill by the Mississippi Legislature allowing for electric cooperatives to provide broadband internet service for their customers. While four North Mississippi rural electric cooperatives have either announced they are bringing the service to their customers, or taken the legal steps to get started, the MCEPA has stalled, claiming that while it is for providing broadband service, its leaders think the first feasibility study conducted in February was too aggressive and too expensive.

“What if new technology comes out? Then y’all are on the hook for $30 million,” said MCEPA General Manager Barry Rowland, who added that there was no grant money factored into the feasibility study figures.

Rowland, however, could not catch a break from the crowd of approximately 500 cooperative members who collectively expressed frustration at not having internet service while the MCEPA is spending millions on a new headquarters in Becker, which will indeed have the exact service residents lack.

Other points of contention were Rowland’s comments that it would take eight years to show a profit following the feasibility model done in February, which is based on a two-year build-out, and the Federal Communications Commission census maps he used to show where internet services were currently available.

According to cooperative members present, the maps were inaccurate, and many of the highlighted areas only offered broadband to commercial properties and not residential. The overall consensus of the crowd is MCEPA should be concerned about taking care of the member-owners rather than making money.

According to Presley, the build-out can be done in smaller increments, spreading the financial obligation out through a longer period of time. He referred to Rowland’s explanation as ‘smoke and mirrors’ and ‘fuzzy math.’

Two hours into the meeting, agitated cooperative members demanded the board members to sign the agreement or be removed from their positions, at which time the board agreed to sign if the advisory committee provision was removed. A resounding ‘no’ from the crowd prompted District 2 MCEPA board member Rickey Camp to announce his resignation.

“I signed up to be on an electrical board, not on a broadband board. As far as I’m concerned, I would like to resign tonight and maybe one of you out there can do a much better job than me. I do not want to be responsible for other lives out there and other homes. It’s not worth it to me, to my family getting phone calls about whether to get the broadband or not. I couldn’t care less. I have the internet,” Camp said.

The meeting ended with no signatures on the proposed agreement and no real estimate as to when steps will be taken to bring broadband service to members of MCEPA. However, in a press release issued to the MCEPA Facebook page Aug. 26, Rowland wrote that the MCEPA agreed to and has entered into a second feasibility study with Fiber Rise. Depending on the data gathered and analyzed by the MCEPA’s board of directors, a decision will be made as to if the electric cooperative will move forward with the broadband issue.

As to why the board wanted the advisory committee stipulation removed from the agreement, Rowland stated board members thought they were elected to make the decisions and they want to be the ones to make them.

He also said the board wanted to send out surveys to all cooperative members to gauge interest in the project.

“It speaks volumes that they don’t want anyone studying this issue. We wouldn’t need this agreement if they did their jobs. All the group wanted tonight was action, and this is the exact resistance we’ve seen since the beginning,” Presley said.

Amory leads Mississippi in U.S. History state assessment

The Mississippi Department of Education recently released results from Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP) assessments administered during the spring semester for math and English Language Arts for grades three through eight, fifth- and eighth-grade science, Biology I and U.S. history.

While superintendents from each school district serving Monroe County students identified strengths and weaknesses through the results, each came away with bragging rights to some regard.

Amory School District

For the Amory School District’s results, Amory High School had the state’s top score for the U.S. History assessment and the seventh highest cumulative result for science from the fifth- and eighth-grade science and Biology I tests, according to district superintendent Ken Byars.

“When I found out that we had the highest proficiency scores in the state, I was in disbelief,” said Amory High School history teacher Masha Laney. “They were so happy, so proud, so amazed that their hard work paid off. It’s like winning a state championship in U.S. history. One thing that I believe is very important is building relationships with my students. They want to make me proud. They work hard for me.”

Individually, fifth-grade science placed third in the state; eighth-grade science was #12, and Biology I ranked #20.

Math proficiency results from the ‘17-’18 school year assessments were 54.8 percent, and that figure increased to 61.9 percent for School Year 2018-2019.

In English Language Arts, the third grade placed in the top 10 percent; seventh grade was in the top eight percent while the fourth grade rounded out the top three, placing in the top 16 percent.

In math, fifth grade placed in the top seven percent, the eighth grade was in the top 11 percent while the fourth grade was in the top 13 percent.

“We did extremely well all the way around, but we can still grow,” Byars said.

He noted that English Language Arts scores are not increasing as much as other areas. That area, as well as stimulating the bottom quartile, remain objectives for achieving greater growth.

Byars continuously practices his own three R’s.

“We endeavor to keep our content rigorous and relevant while cultivating positive relationships with stakeholders,” Byars said. “If the school district does well, so does the community; if the community does well, so does the school district.”

Aberdeen School District

Results from this spring’s assessments indicated decreases in several areas compared to last year’s assessments for the Aberdeen School District.

“We didn’t have a great year, and one year is not going to define us. Sitting down with our principals and directors, we have a plan to fix this and we’ll wake up every day to make sure we’re serving the needs of the kids,” said Aberdeen School District Superintendent Jeff Clay.

He said Aberdeen Elementary School faced decreases in reading and math scores, and growth rates for proficiency in reading and math were similar to the previous year’s assessments. Belle-Shivers Middle School faced decreases in reading, math and fifth- and eighth-grade science scores.

For Aberdeen High School, Clay said there was a significant decrease in reading and a slight decrease in math. The proficiency growth for math, however, had an increase. U.S. history scores faced a decrease, and science scores remained the same as last year’s assessments. Clay said college- and career-readiness increased slightly, and acceleration slightly decreased.

Clay hopes programs in place requiring higher grades such as the middle-college program and Beta Clubs will encourage students.

“We hope the implementation of students going to ICC [through the high school’s middle-college program] will generate some excitement. We really want to expand that. If they can get a diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time, that would be great. We want to expand it to where hopefully some kids can take CTC [career-technical courses] at the Belden or Tupelo campus,” Clay said. “We thank you for your continued support, and the entire Aberdeen School District will wake up to improve on a daily basis.”

Monroe County School District

According to Monroe County Superintendent of Education Brian Jernigan, his district did well overall, with sixth-grade math scores placing among the top 10 districts in the state. He said there were five areas where the district scored 10 points above the state average.

“Our number one goal is to ensure that all teachers and administrators understand the state accountability model,” he said. “We’re doing individual student monitoring to help reach goals – individually, as a class and ultimately as a school and district.”

Jernigan said during the last four years’ performance in third-, fourth- and fifth-grade math has been consistently going up, as is fifth-grade English Language Arts.

“We’re growing these areas,” he said.

Jernigan identified challenges in Algebra I to maintain or increase proficiency.

“We want to see growth in every area. We’ve endeavoring to keep everybody moving up,” he said.

As a district, Jernigan is championing setting goals that are reasonable, measurable and achievable.

“If a student’s scores are within six points of the goal, the next level is achievable,” he said.

Nettleton School District

Nettleton School District Superintendent Tim Dickerson said the MAAP assessments showed areas school officials are proud of and areas for opportunities for improvements.

“We’ve got a lot of room to grow everywhere but we have the potential. We’re going to start working on some plans to show our students how to get a little better showing on the MAAP tests,” he said.

Dickerson was pleased with the Biology I and U.S. history results, adding history increased by several percentage points.

“Our proficiency ratings are not exactly where we want to be. It’s mostly in the 40s, and we think we can get more kids in that proficiency range,” he said.

He is working with principals to make that one of the district’s focal points.

Reviewing other data, he said Nettleton High School’s graduation rate has been holding steady in the lower 80 percent range, but Dickerson wants to see that number increase.

He also said there is an upward trend in college- and career-readiness thanks to trying new approaches at the high school that led to an increase of more than 10 percentage points.

“We’ve got some work to do in the lower grades as far as math. We’ve put some new math programs in this year and hope to put in stability there, and that will go through the high school,” Dickerson said.