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COVID contact tracing excludes hundreds from county schools

COCKE COUNTY—County Board of Education members gathered Tuesday evening to discuss several items. One of the main topics deliberated over was the impact COVID has had on the beginning of the school year.

The major issue for the board and school administration is the number of students being excluded from class due to contact tracing.

Manney Moore, Director of County Schools, said a total of 1,079 students have been placed in quarantine due to close contact with a potentially sick individual.

Of those 1,079 exclusions, only 27 have come back as positive for COVID-19.

Moore said that amounts to a positive rate of 2.5%.

Nancy Brawley, Assistant Principal at Cocke County High School, said administrators are overwhelmed by contact tracing. She estimated that 95% of their day is spent reaching out to students and their parents about the need to quarantine.

A side effect of the exclusions has been an increased workload for teachers across the county.

Shawna Murrell, Principal at Cosby High School, said teachers are preparing multiple plans for students inside and outside the classroom.

“Some teachers have three different subjects they teach which means there are three preps,” Murrell said. “They also have to do three preps for students working from home due to quarantine, and another three for students that need packets due to limited internet access. Things are very specific for what the child can do from home.”

Governor Bill Lee’s recent executive order restricted the ability to implement a mask mandate for students.

Board member and doctor, Ken Johnson, made a motion to support mask usage in schools even though the board cannot require they be used. The board agreed with the motion, stopping short of a mandate.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics say that masks help stop the spread of COVID,” Johnson said. “We can’t police mask usage, but if 50% wear them we may be able to prevent that 50% from being sent home. The governor has tied our hands because we can’t close schools or mandate masks, but we can at least recommend them.”

Board chair John Johnson suggested relaxing contact tracing at schools based on the number of students that are actually contracting COVID after being exposed.

“Should we look at relaxing contact tracing? We don’t have a law on masks but we need to give teachers every tool they need,” Johnson said. “We appreciate everything they are doing and what they’re going through. Two out of every 100 hundred being positive is a disservice to those 98 students.”

Board member Richard Coggins noted that some students have been sent home twice within the first three weeks of the school year due to tracing. Depending on their negative test results, some may have already missed two full weeks of school.

Dr. Johnson made a motion to minimize contact tracing in an effort to keep children in schools. The motion was given a second by board member Jimmy Stokely, which passed unanimously.

The board noted that if cases increase in the coming weeks that contact tracing could begin again in earnest.

Casey Kelley, Assistant Director of Schools, said the COVID Advisory Committee would meet to discuss a “day in the life of a student” without maximum contact tracing.

“Active or positive cases will still be sent home, but if a quarantined student is symptom free they may return to school,” Kelley said. “The committee will meet for a brainstorming session on this Wednesday morning.”

Kelley said the County Health Department is overwhelmed by the number of tests they are giving to community members. He said the department is no longer a “viable” option for expedited tests results.

“Students are already back in school after quarantine by the time we get their test results back.”

The school system recently received a grant to provide additional nurses in schools for two years. They hope to use these nurses to help administer in-house COVID tests in the coming weeks.

“We need parents to check with their children to see if they have any symptoms. Parents are the first line of defense for schools, followed by teachers and nurses. It takes the entire village coming together to fight this pandemic,” Kelley said.

The board will meet again on Thursday, September 9 at 6 p.m. for their regularly scheduled monthly meeting.

They will further review COVID counts in schools and what measures can be taken to provide a safe environment for students and teachers.

NU looks to expand sewer system using grant funds

NEWPORT—Newport Utilities board members were briefed on plans to expand NU’s sewer operations during their meeting Tuesday morning.

The board gave their approval for Michael Williford, NU General Manager, to hire a firm to do the design work for the expansion.

“Money is available at the state level, however a professional service firm must design things,” Williford said.

“We have to put forth $60,000 to $70,000, but that goes towards our reimbursement.”

Lucas Graham, Cocke County Economic Development Director, told the board that millions of dollars have been allocated to this particular project.

“This is a state Economic Development Grant that comes from the governor’s office,” Graham said. “A total of $3 million has been dedicated to this and the Economic and Community Development office is working on drafts. Once we have a contract in hand we can move forward.”

The grant will work in a similar fashion to those that are awarded through the Appalachian Regional Commission. Certain administrative requirements must be met and engineering firms hired before funds will be reimbursed through the state.

Joni Daniel, V/P of Accounting and Finance, provided a financial review for the month on June.

Daniel reported that cash flow for the electric department has increased by $582,000 year-to-date with no new debt acquired.

“We’ve gone from $29.8 million to just over $30 million. It’s the first time we have shown a positive cash flow in electric for several years. It’s a good thing to show year-over-year,” Daniel said.

Revenue in the water department also increased for the month mainly due to the fact that Conagra is still operating in Newport. Net income for the month in the department stood at $115,000. Revenue and net income has also increased over the fiscal year.

“Our capital spending is down and operating margin is up,” Daniel said. “The fact that Conagra is still open is what is driving the increase in income.”

The sewer department saw similar increases for the month and year due to Conagra’s monthly usage. Year-to-date the sewer department has seen an increase of $827,000.

The decision to raise customers’ rates was a difficult one, but it was done to help offset the drop in revenue NU will see when Conagra closes this October.

Daniel said the increase was delayed as long as possible, but was a necessity to keep the system operational.

“We waited as long as we could to implement those rates. Once they (Conagra) are gone it will impact things, but with the rates we set we should be ok. We hate that we have to go through this as a county, but we have to keep the system up.”

Chris Calhoun, V/P of Operations and Technology, said it is imperative for NU to keep the cash flow for the sewer department in the positive range. He hopes the expansion of the sewer system into different parts of the county will balance things out in the future.

Williford told the board Rodefer Moss is currently performing the prior fiscal year audit. The additional work being done by the financial department led to the delay in July’s report.

“The audits have put a lot of work on our accounting staff and that’s why financials are a month behind. They are pulling a lot of information and putting in a lot of work,” Williford said.

He told the board that federal regulators have asked NU to rewrite their broadband plan multiple times. The regulators also hope to hold an information session with board members and city officials.

“We are working nights and weekends rewriting our entire business plan twice. We are redoing everything that we have already done over the past two years. It’s another large project that is taking a lot of time and effort.

“The regulators want to hold an executive session with city officials to come in and discuss things. This will be a closed session with our attorneys. This should be a good information session.”

The next public meeting of NU’s board of directors will take place on Tuesday, September 28 at 10:30 a.m.

Wilbur West, long-time Supervisor of Curriculum for County Schools, dies at age 77

COCKE COUNTY—Wilbur Maurice West, a respected and trusted figure in the Cocke County School System for more than four decades, passed away on Tuesday, August 24 at the age of 77.

Mr. West’s total career as a Cocke County educator spanned forty-five years, including service as teacher, coach, guidance counselor, and principal before he became the supervisor of curriculum and instruction.

After high school, Mr. West entered Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, graduating with honors with an Associate of Arts Degree.

Mr. West completed his Bachelor of Science Degree at East Tennessee State University and returned to his alma mater, Cosby School, to begin teaching.

West became Cosby High School’s first full-time guidance counselor.

During his time as counselor, he completed his Master’s Degree at East Tennessee State University, and reached the teacher certification level of Master’s Degree.

He continued as counselor until fall 1977, when he became principal of Cosby School. After two and one-half years as principal, he was asked to fill a mid-year vacancy as Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction in the school system central office.

West served as Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction in the Cocke County School System for thirty-one and one-half years, his tenure being the longest ever in the school system’s chief supervisory position.

During his career he gained the esteem of his colleagues as a person of exceptional integrity, industry, attention to detail, good will, and acceptance of responsibility.

Survivors include his wife of 29 years Brenda Renner West, sister and brother-in-law Susan and Mickey Blazer, sister-in-law Debbie Renner and special cousins and long-time friends: Russell (Pat) Holloway, Anna (Dr. Karl) Kapoor, Julia (Steve) Brady, Jesse (Vickie) Sauceman, Dottie (Gary) Ford, Billy (Sandy) Sauceman, Dr. Jennifer Sauceman, Dr. Amanda Ford, Rickie Jo Shepherd, Sheila and Luther Pruitt, Lonnie Butler, Charlie Seehorn, Dave Ritter and Ron (Benna) Bennett. Also many other cousins, nieces, nephews and friends, and his beloved fur baby Lucy.

Lee anounces candidacy for 4th Judicial District Public Defender

COCKE COUNTY—Rebecca V. Lee is announcing her candidacy for the 4th Judicial District Public Defender, serving Cocke, Grainger, Jefferson, and Sevier Counties. Lee was appointed to this position in January by Governor Bill Lee after zealously advocating for the constitutional rights of the citizens in her community as an Assistant Public Defender.

Ed Miller served 31 years as the District Public Defender and retired this past year, which led to Lee’s appointment.

Lee states, “Over the past 7 years I have advocated for our citizens and served as an Assistant Public Defender. I have felt so honored to serve our community, and I am passionate about fulfilling the 5th and 6th Amendments, which guarantee every citizen the assistance of legal counsel in criminal cases. This guarantee protects against government overreach, impacting all of our rights, and ensures that the government is locking up the right person. Further, effective legal representation offers alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, which reduces costs to taxpayers, reduces recidivism, and promotes reentry into society as productive citizens.”

Prior to serving as an Assistant Public Defender in the 4th Judicial District, Lee was a Judicial Clerk for Chief Justice Gary Wade on the Tennessee Supreme Court.

She also serves in her community on the Fourth Judicial District Drug Recovery Court Board of Directors, and she previously served as secretary of the board for Renovatus Recovery Community. Before attending law school, Lee taught math at Cosby High School.

Lee resides in Dandridge with her husband Paul “P.K” Lee. They have 3 grown sons: Kris, Nick, and Noah, and a daughter-in-law, Amber.

Her family attends Crossroads Community Church in Newport.

Lee will be running on the Republican ticket and is seeking to be nominated in the May 2022 primary and elected in the general election to follow on August 4th.

Lee humbly asks for her community’s support.

Planning Commission approves multiple subdivision requests

COCKE COUNTY—The Regional Planning Commission met Tuesday evening to review two subdivision requests made by local developers.

J. Brennan Garrett made the first request on behalf of landowners Chad Husky and David Carr, for land in the Majestic View subdivision.

The owners were seeking to subdivide 5.56 acres into five separate tracts along Cocke County Line Road and Holders Grove Road.

“All of the tracts have county road frontage and are one acre plus,” Garrett said.

“This is just a re-subdivision of the remainder of lot one in Majestic View.”

The commission reviewed the request and gave their approval pending several requirements.

Kathryn Baldwin, with the East Tennessee Development District, asked Garrett to obtain addresses for each lot from Cocke County E-911, add certification of sewer utility once approved and show all public utilities and easements on the final plat that will be recorded with the County Register of Deeds.

The second request approved by the commission came from Askew Realty on behalf of the Hommel family. This was a carryover from the July meeting where Junior Hommel approached commissioners seeking guidance on subdividing 12 acres into separate tracts. The land is on Splashaway Road in Newport.

Baldwin provided another list of stipulations that must be met before the commission’s secretary signs the final documents.

The tracts will need property addresses assigned by E-911, utilities and associated easements must be shown on the map, all lots must have 100 feet of road frontage on Splashaway, and a statement regarding floodplain status must be provided.

Commission members briefly discussed a potential joint meeting with the County Legislative Body concerning subdivision regulations.

The idea of a workshop has been kicked around in multiple meetings, but a date has not been established for a brainstorming session.

The Planning Commission will meet again on Tuesday, September 28 at 5:15 p.m. in the Chancery Courtroom of the Courthouse Annex.

Civil Service Board testing for Sheriff's positions August 30-31

COCKE COUNTY—The Cocke County Sheriff’s Office Civil Service Board will hold the written exam portion of testing for anyone that has applied for positions at the Sheriff’s Office on August 30 at 6 p.m. at the EMA Building behind the Cocke County Fire Department.

There will also be a Physical Training test at 8 a.m. Tuesday August 31 at the fairgrounds.

The Civil Service Board will now be giving a 20% weight in the final competitive scoring for physical abilities for positions where appropriate for the job performance, i.e., Patrol, School Resource Officer, Corrections Officer, etc. Interview and written testing will be valued at 40% each.

The Board will award five extra points for Veterans of the Military and five extra points for a POST Certified candidate applying for a position that requires certification.