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County commission chair apologizes for emails

The chairman of the Lee County commissioners apologized Monday for failing to make clear he spoke for himself in emails sent to the Board of Education about two of its members.

Chairman Kirk Smith made the apology during a special called meeting Monday of the commissioners.

Smith said he did not make clear in the emails that he was speaking for himself and not as a representative for the county commissioners.

“Last week, after receiving the disturbing information about Board of Education member Patrick Kelly, I sent an email to members of the Board of Education demanding his resignation,” Smith said.

The school board is conducting an informal investigation of Kelly after photos of him appeared on web sites promoting bondage, submission and sado-masochistic sex practices.

Smith’s email was sent with a Lee County letterhead.

Smith said he also failed to make clear that he was speaking for himself when he emailed school members to show support for member Sherry Womack.

She attended the Jan. 6 “Make America Great Again” rally in Washington, D.C., and in talking with a reporter from USA Today identified herself as a member of the Lee County Board of Education.

The rally turned violent when protesters stormed the Capitol. Five people died in the melee.

The school board voted to investigate whether Womack violated any policies by identifying herself as a board member or by attending the rally.

The board’s attorney found no wrong-doing on Womack’s part.

“These stated instances were an oversight on my part and in the future, I will make sure that I state that I speak for myself and not the Lee County Board of Commissioners,” Smith said Monday.

“Does our policy clearly state we’re required to offer a disclaimer?” Commissioner Robert Rieves asked.

Smith said the policy allows board members to voice their own opinions on position in talking with the public and media, but it must be made clear that it is not a representation of county government.

Reives asked that the board vote for the record that it did not take any action to authorize the email about Kelly to the Board of Education on March 16.

Things grew testy when Commissioner Bill Carver asked if the discussion was the result of feedback from any school board members.

“Did it cause confusion and that’s why we have to clarify it with a motion?” Carver said.

“I don’t know what the Board of Education has done and I don’t need to hear from them,” Rieves said. “They don’t owe us an explanation. That’s their board. They’re elected just like us.”

Gov. Cooper easing some COVID-19 restrictions

Gov. Roy Cooper issued an Executive Order on Tuesday that will ease some of the COVID-19 pandemic-imposed restrictions.

The major changes are an increased capacity indoors and outdoors for some operations, Cooper said Tuesday in a televised news conference.

This includes museums, aquariums, retail businesses and shops, salons and personal care shops, he said.

“The new order will allow some places to increase capacity up to 75% indoors and up to 100% outdoors,” Cooper said. “They include restaurants, breweries, wineries, amusement parks, gyms and pools and other recreation establishments.”

Bars, sports arenas, conference centers and venues for receptions and live performances will be allowed to increase the capacity up to 50% indoors and outdoors, according to Cooper.

He also announced that effective Friday, the 11 p.m. curfew for serving on-site alcohol will be lifted.

“The mass gathering limit, which covers other kinds of gatherings not otherwise laid out in the order, will be increased to 50 indoors and 100 outdoors,” Cooper said.

That includes high school sports.

However, Cooper said masks must continue to be worn and social distancing practiced.

“These are significant changes, but they can be done safely,” he said. “We have said all along that the science and data would be our guide in this dimmer switch approach, and they show we can do this.”

Statewide, COVID-19 numbers are holding steady and hospitalizations are declining, he said.

The percentage of positive tests is holding at 5%, which is the goal set by Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Most all of the state’s schools have returned to in-person learning, Cooper said.

As of Tuesday, more than 4.1 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been given with one-third of adults having received at least one dose and 18.8% being fully vaccinated, Cooper said.

The coronavirus still poses a threat, Cohen said, especially the more contagious variants that are spreading in some states.

As of Tuesday, 899,164 cases of COVID-19 have been reported statewide since the pandemic began a year ago. New cases reported Monday totaled 1,062 with 956 people hospitalized.

The coronavirus has claimed the lives of 11,854 North Carolinians in the past year.

Student exchange program seeks host families

A local student exchange program is looking for Lee County families to host high-schoolers from around the world.

Borderless Friends Forever, a Cary-based nonprofit founded in 2014, is working with the school district to place international students in Lee County and Southern Lee high schools, said Executive Director Crystal Allis.

In years past, the program has brought students to Lee County from Romania, Jordan and Thailand. Currently, Allis is looking for three to five local families willing to host students for the 2021-22 school year, she said.

“The host family volunteers to provide three meals a day, a place to sleep, a place to study ... (and) general parenting, love, guidance, that sort of thing,” Allis said.

The program has about 150 students this year, from 28 different countries, Allis said. Participants are ages 15-18 and speak English, she added.

Families interested in hosting can complete an online application that includes references. Families then go through a background check and home visit. Once approved, they can choose which student they wish to host.

“We ask them, ‘What kind of student are you looking for? Are you mostly interested in hosting a male or female student? What kind of activities does your family enjoy?’ ” Allis said. “We try to pull together a group of profiles of students that we think would interest that family based on some common ground.”

The student exchange program had to shut down last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Allis said. Now that the vaccine is available and borders are reopening, she’s excited to restart it, she said.

“With the vaccines going the way they’re going, with the numbers decreasing the way they are, we feel fairly confident we’ll move forward in August with a regular school year, or at least a semi-regular school year,” Allis said.

“I think people are eager to do something new and different, and have a (new) experience, because they’ve been cooped up this whole time. We’re all eager to do something more exciting than our everyday, humdrum life.”

Student exchange programs provide people with an opportunity to connect to those who are different from them, Allis said. With the country and the world so divided right now, making friends with people from other countries can break stereotypes, change perceptions and expand a student’s view of the world, she said.

“It creates an opportunity to build bridges. It’s more challenging to dislike a whole population of people when you love one person from that population,” Allis said.

“This may be the only opportunity a Lee County kid gets to meet somebody from Kazakhstan, for example. So it brings another layer of diversity and another opportunity for learning to the community as well as to the schools.”

New school budget proposes 2% raise for teachers

A 2% increase in pay for Lee County teachers and staff is one of the big-ticket items in the 2021-22 budget proposal presented to the board of education Monday.

The budget proposal includes an increase of $1.5 million over last year’s budget, which remained flat because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, costs to the school district due to the public health crisis remained uncertain, so the school board did not request an increase in local funding from county commissioners.

This year, the district hopes to make up the difference by raising the pay of teachers and staff by 2% instead of 1%. The proposed budget raises the local supplement for certified staff from 10 to 12% at a cost of $990,000. It raises the local supplement for classified staff from 4% to 6%, at a cost of $420,000.

Also included in the proposed budget is an increase to the athletic supplement for coaches, the first since 2001, at a cost of $65,000. The current expense budget proposal for fiscal year 2021-22 totals $20.4 million, which is $1.475 million more than last year.

The school district’s proposed budget also includes the capital fund, which covers items like construction projects and equipment purchases.

Among the costs in the $1.3 million capital budget proposal are:

• $300,000 for construction projects across the district to improve schools, such as the installation of new canopies and walkways, repainting and repaving;

• $260,000 to convert the carpet to tile at J. Glenn Edwards Elementary School;

• $180,000 to upgrade the boiler in the auditorium at Lee County High School;

• $120,000 to install security doors and new fire alarms at several schools;

• $150,000 to upgrade the HVAC systems at B.T. Bullock, Broadway, Deep River and Tramway elementary schools.

How will federal relief money be spent?

As part of the budget process, school district staff received dozens of request for new personnel, curriculum materials, technology and equipment from school principals. They also received requests for upgrades to the school buildings themselves, some of which are met by the proposed capital budget.

Superintendent Andy Bryan said the district hopes to fulfill some of the other requests with federal funding allocated through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Both are big financial relief bills passed by Congress during the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, the district has received a little more than $5 million in federal money and expects to receive an additional $8.4 million, Bryan said.

In the past year, coronavirus relief money has been spent on personal protective equipment, new laptops for students, interactive whiteboards for classrooms, expansion of wi-fi for virtual education, and equipment for the transportation and child nutrition departments.

Federal money could be spent on similar items for the 2021-22 fiscal year, as well as to hire additional staff to meet the physical, emotional and social health needs of students.

During this year’s budget process, principals at 10 of the district’s 17 schools requested a full-time nurse and/or additional social workers or counselors. Currently, the district has 10 nurses who rotate among the district’s schools.

The district plans to hire more nurses, social workers and counselors in the coming months, said Superintendent Andy Bryan. The number of new hires has not yet been determined, Bryan said.

Chairwoman Sandra Bowen expressed some concern about federal funding for such positions eventually running out, leaving the school district with the responsibility to pay new hires and introducing an additional recurring expense in the budget.

“If those (federal) funds are not recurring, that’s an expense we will incur assuming we want to keep those nurses whenever the federal faucet stops running,” Bowen said.

The most recent funding lasts through the fall of 2023, Bryan said. The district’s hope is that other financial options will become available at that point.

“That funding does buy us some time to focus in on other areas of need that we think are critical as well,” he said.

Board member Sherry Womack said staff need to make sure the board is aware of what the federal money is spent on. With $13.4 million coming into the district, the board needs to ensure the money is spent responsibly, she said.

“My request is that we have something (a report on) where the dollars went so that we’re fiscally responsible and able to answer (to) our community as well,” she said.

County approves Project Star incentives

The Lee County Commissioner voted Monday in favor of an economic development incentive package worth more than $6 million to entice a life sciences company to locate in Sanford.

The company has not been identified, but is called Project Star.

If Project Star locates here, the impact could mean a nearly 2-cent reduction in the property tax over the seven years of the agreement, according to Lisa Minter, the county’s financial officer.

Project Star is expected to bring $213 million in investment based on construction needs and the installation and purchase of machinery, according to Jimmy Randolph, CEO of the Sanford Area Growth Alliance.

It will create 315 new jobs with salaries averaging about $60,000 annually, Randolph said, and would be located in Central Carolina Enterprise Park.

“The company is considering the purchase of the second shell building,” Randolph said.

The first shell building is now occupied by the San Francisco-based Audentes Therapeutics that located a gene therapy business in the first shell building about a year ago.

“We have a thriving life sciences sector here in Lee County and (Project Star) will strengthen the presence of that sector in Sanford and Lee County,” Randolph said.

An agreement between the county and the city of Sanford is in place for construction of a third shell building.

The cost of the incentive package will be shared with the City of Sanford. The agreement was approved last week by the Sanford City Council.

Commissioners approved the package after a public hearing. Randolph spoke in favor of the agreement. No one spoke against the plan.