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Communities in Schools going strong in second year

COCKE COUNTY—In fall of 2019, Communities in Schools of Tennessee (CIS-TN) launched a three-year pilot program in 23 rural high schools across 15 counties. Two of those schools are right here in Cocke County.

The program was introduced to Tennessee in the 2012-2013 school year, serving three schools in Nashville. Since then, the program has expanded to cover 17 schools in Nashville, and has spawned an independent CIS affiliate in Memphis and the recent pilot of the CIS-TN Rural Expansion.

CIS-TN’s goal is to identify chronic absenteeism in students and address the underlying issues that cause it.

“This isn’t just kids playing hooky because they don’t feel like showing up,” says Holly Tungett, Site Coordinator for CIS-TN at Cocke County High School.

“Most of the time there’s something a lot bigger going on, whether they’re food insecure, or they don’t have a ride, or they don’t have a way to wash their clothing. Our job is to address these needs.”

Tungett came to the program at CCHS in 2019 when it launched, and she’s extremely proud of what CIS-TN has accomplished in its first years.

“When I first got started, it took a little bit for people to figure out who we were and what we were doing, both for students and for the community. Students didn’t know what resources we were providing to them. After that first year, though, we’ve really taken off,” Tungett said.

CIS-TN provides resources that span a wider range than one might expect, and the power of the program lies within that flexibility. Site coordinators work with the community and with the students to provide support wherever the students need it most.

“Our goal is to provide in-school support built on strong relationships with the students,” said Dawn Williams, Cosby High School’s CIS-TN Site Coordinator. Williams joined the program in September of 2020 to fill the position of former Site Coordinator Kenny Cody.

“Attendance is our main focus, but it isn’t our only focus,” Williams said.

“We start by looking at attendance, then we say ‘okay, what are these students’ academic needs?’ and then from there, we address their social and emotional needs.”

Williams shared just how broad the support CIS-TN provides truly is. They’ve worked with Crisis Pregnancy Centers to provide help to students affected by teen pregnancy. They’ve partnered with local businesses to provide food boxes and Christmas boxes to students in need. They’ve helped provide funding to pay students’ light and grocery bills.

“There was one time I got a phone call before I even got to school,” Tungett shared. “’Mrs. Holly I missed the bus this morning, could you come pick me up?’ So I got in my car and drove out to get them.”

Williams and Tungett both stressed that much of their work would not be possible without help from the community. Both schools’ programs offer a clothes closet and food pantry to the students, with supplies provided by the community.

“Our clothing closet is all donations from the community, we’ll do clothing drives and stuff like that. The shelves we use for storage were built by one of our shop classes. We have a whole rack of professional clothes, in case a student has a job interview or anything like that. A lot of these kids do end up needing help financially supporting their family,” said Tungett.

Another large supporter of the program is Amazon, who provides anything from plastic storage containers for clothing to peanut butter and oatmeal for the pantry.

“Pretty much whatever we need, I can reach out and say ‘Hey we need this or that’ and they’ll get it to us,” Tungett said.

Williams shared that Amazon even helped to provide wheelchairs for students who needed them.

“The most important thing is that this isn’t meant to be a punitive thing,” Tungett explained, “it’s more of an incentive program and an intervention program.”

“Most of all, these students just need a place to feel safe,” Williams said.

“They need somewhere that, no matter what’s going on at home, no matter what’s going on in their classes, they can come to us and just be reminded that people care about them.”

For more information, or to donate to CIS-TN, visit cistn.org or contact either Holly Tungett at htungett@cistn.org or Dawn Williams at rdwilliams@cistn.org.

General Committee considers downsizing CLB from 14 to 7

COCKE COUNTY—General Committee members gathered Tuesday evening to discuss several items, including the potential of cutting the number of County Legislative Body members from 14 to seven.

Mayor Crystal Ottinger said the move could cut costs, as commissioners are currently paid $200 per month to serve the county. She also noted that voting would likely go smoother with a smaller group of commissioners.

“Commissioners have been looking at ways to cut costs and going from two commissioners per district to one could help with that,” Ottinger said.

“It’s sometimes difficult to have a quorum to hold meetings, or a super majority to get things passed. This doesn’t have to go before the General Assembly to be put into motion. We would just need a resolution and there would only be one available position per district in the next election. The money could be saved by the county, or you could increase commissioner’s pay to better incentivize individuals to run for these positions.”

Commissioner and committee chair Forest Clevenger agreed with the mayor saying it is difficult to get the majority of his fellow commissioners to agree on county related matters.

He said that many commissioners might not seek re-election in 2022, which would make this the perfect time to cut the number to seven.

The committee decided to further discuss the matter with the full CLB at their upcoming meeting.

Another cost cutting measure could be taken if the CLB decides to get rid of commissioners that serve the County Highway Department.

Clevenger said that laws recently changed, which has left the board with little to no power. He estimated that the county could save $18,000 per year by eliminating the positions.

Commissioner Gayla Blazer fears that doing so would leave citizens without representation when it comes to road issues in their district.

“People usually call there road commissioner so where or who would they call when they have issues? Would that create another position at the Highway Department to handle the call volume? If so, then I can’t see this as being cost effective,” Blazer said.

Commissioner Casey Gilliam works for the Highway Department. He encouraged his fellow body members to reach out to road commissioners to get their opinion on the issue. He also made a motion to send the discussion to the full CLB for consideration.

Continuing the theme of the meeting, the committee then discussed the possibility of combining Cocke County Circuit and Sessions Court offices to save additional funds.

Clevenger recently spoke with Circuit Court Clerk Kristy Nease, who said her office could handle the day-to-day operations of both departments. He said that some positions would transfer from one office to the other. The biggest savings would come from removing the elected official from Sessions Court.

Clevenger said that Frankie ‘Peachie’ Cody is not seeking re-election next year so this is the time to consider the move.

He asked for Nease to speak with County Finance Director Heather McGaha to see how much money combining the offices could save.

Former Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Derrick Woods addressed the committee about the possibility of paid retirement insurance for county employees.

Woods said the county school system currently offers this to all teachers who work within the system for 30 years and retire at the age of 60.

The system pays for five years of insurance coverage until the individual is eligible for Medicare.

The county pays a portion of the insurance for each employee, which amounts to $7,400 annually per individual.

He said money that is remitted each year from budgets would help cover the retirement insurance for employees.

“I reviewed the county budgets over several years and there is usually $200,000 or more left over each year,” Woods said.

“You could create a surplus of revenue each year as employees wait to receive insurance during their probation periods, and others either retire or leave a department. This would put the rest of the county on a level playing field with the school system.”

Woods noted that additional revenue would be saved once the individual at the higher pay rate retires and a new employee comes in at a lesser amount.

Commissioner Clevenger liked the idea proposed by Woods, but said the county uses remitted funds to operate in the next fiscal year. He feared a shortfall if the money were allocated for other purposes.

Clevenger proposed a buyout for county employees that have other insurance options available through a spouse or outside source. He said the county could save thousands per employee if they decline their option for insurance.

The commissioners will continue their discussions at the next CLB meeting.

The full body will meet on May 17 at 6 p.m. in the Cocke County High School auditorium.

Sanitation Board wants in-house disposal of county waste

COCKE COUNTY—Sanitation Board members met Thursday evening to continue their discussions on waste disposal options for the county.

Tony Heavner, board chairman, presented a proposal that featured new trucks, employees, compactors and waste containers that would allow the county to take over the entire waste disposal operation. The price tag for the proposal totaled more than $3.45 million, but stretched those costs over a 10 year period.

He hopes the county will back this plan and haul its own waste, which is currently being done by Green For Life (GFL) Environmental.

GFL provided a proposal for new compactors at all convenience centers, but withdrew the proposal after several months of no decision from the County Legislative Body.

Their proposal was in excess of $5 million, and Heavner said that cost would increase in their new proposal.

“We would save about $1.5 million versus the GFL contract that was offered to us,” Heavner said.

“Our proposal would have the county do everything on its own and the prices are projected over 10 years just like GFL’s proposal. If we do it ourselves, we won’t have to worry about the lack of drivers or centers shutting down. We would haul our own waste and everything would be dedicated to Cocke County.”

The board’s proposal features two full-time driver positions, one secretary and a part-time driver/mechanic position.

All trucks and compactors would come from Sourcewell, a cooperative purchasing contractor that serves governments and a wide variety of other organizations.

Using this provider would save the county a significant amount of money over GFL’s offer, especially for compactors, according to Heavner.

“With this plan all but two of the convenience centers would have two compactors. Our proposal includes all fuel costs and maintenance associated with the trucks. We would save $5,000 per compactor compared to the price being offered by GFL. This is just an option, but I think we could do it, and do it well.”

Handling the disposal of waste and owning its own dumpsters could allow the county to make money in the future. Heavner said surrounding counties are renting dumpster to citizens, and the only costs associated are for delivery and pickup of containers.

The board decided to send their proposal to the County Legislative Body. They hope to have it reviewed by the budget or finance committees.

Heavner informed the board that phase one of the landfill expansion is proceeding on schedule. All contracts have been signed and BLE Corp has been selected to perform the construction quality assurance on the new section. Ground should be broken at the site by the first of July.

The board would like to purchase land that is adjacent to the landfill that could be used for a future expansion. The tract is large enough to extend the life of the landfill by another 30 to 40 years.

County Mayor not seeking re-election in 2022

COCKE COUNTY—On Tuesday, Cocke County Mayor Crystal Ottinger announced that she will not seek a third term in 2022.

The mayor released a statement saying she is humbled by the support she has received during her time in office.

“After months of prayerful consideration, I have decided not to seek re-election as your Cocke County Mayor,” Ottinger said.

“I am humbled at all the support you have had in me and trust you have placed in me. The last 7 years have been the most rewarding, as well as the most challenging, of my life and I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve. If you know me, you know I give my all to this position and I will continue to do so until my last day in this office.”

Ottinger decided to make this decision earlier than usual, in hopes that other worthy individuals will announce their candidacy.

“It is my hope that by announcing this a year prior to the primary election that someone worthy of your support and vote will announce their candidacy for county mayor. Again, I thank you for your support, trust and confidence.”

Ottinger started her political ambitions in late 2013 by visiting with citizens at local festivals. She went on to win the Republican Primary in May of 2014, becoming Mayor-Elect of Cocke County.

She defeated incumbent Mayor Vaughn Moore and Jeff “Fud” Ball, both of whom did write-in campaigns, in the General Election that year.

Ottinger faced a tougher challenge as she sought re-election in 2018.

She emerged from a field of five challengers in the primary, besting Roger Stokely by just 64 votes. Ottinger locked up a second term in office that August by defeating William Smallwood and Marcus Mooneyham by sizeable margins.

During her time in office she has completed the Certified Public Manager and Local Government Leadership programs through the UT Institute for Public Service.