1. School Board
Perhaps the most engaging story of 2015 will continue to be a major focus in 2016 – the McCreary County School Board.
The year ended with a search for a new Superintendent underway as well as allegations that some members of the Board acted improperly.
Things began to heat up in January that may have signaled the end of Superintendent Donnie Wright’s 8-year tenure as head of the District.
The same night new Board Member Rhonda Armijo took office, Chairperson Nelda Gilreath vacated the position and nominating Brandon Kidd to take her place. A new seating arrangement was voted on – shunting Wright to the corner.
Already facing upcoming budget issues, the Board began looking at ways to balance finances along with granting employees a raise in addition to a state-mandated increase.
Later that month the Board and Wright began to battle over the future of the McCreary Academy, and possible action involving Wright’s contract was placed on the agenda, but no action was taken at that time.
It was also learned that the Pine Knot Job Corps would not be renewing their contract with the school district. Wright maintained it would be a loss of revenue, while the Board believed it was not and resources would be better spent elsewhere.
In February, despite Wright’s protests, the Board voted to move the Academy back to its’ former home at the Middle School and restore staffing allocations.
Much needed repair work to the roof at Pine Knot Intermediate, and structural repairs for the Middle School were initiated. Later in the year additional work, such as a locker room facility for girl’s softball (to comply with Title IX requirements) were added as well.
Budget cuts were major topics of dissent between some members of the Board and Wright in April. Needing to cut nearly half a million dollars, the Board ultimately voted to a $1.3 million reduction. The cuts used some of Wright’s recommendations, but Kidd also added to the cuts with some suggestions from the Board, Central Office staff and others.
The Board also voted to move the McCreary County Preschool out of the old facility and into Pine Knot Primary and Whitley City Elementary. The move came about after some Board members concerns over the existing building in serious need of repair and safety issues.
In May Wright tendered his resignation, effective December 31, and accepted a settlement that allowed him to take a leave of absence until that date.
Things settled down for a brief while after that.
In July Mike Cash was named Acting Superintendent, and he began initiating reforms to hopefully prevent further budget issues.
But in August two lawsuits were filed against the Board and others containing accusations of unfair punishment and vengeful actions against some staff in the wake of budget cuts and an incident at WCES.
The Board also angered many citizens that month by opting to increase taxes for the first time in several years, choosing a four percent increase at the suggestion of the Kentucky Department of Education. Citing the need to raise revenue and the hope of preventing a similar budget issue the next year, the Board voted 3-2 for the increase.
Not long after the tax increase, the Board was hit by more bad news.
The Office of Educational Accountability released reports into allegations of wrongdoing by the Board and two of its members.
Through their attorneys, the Board members denied the accusations.
The reports were forwarded to the state for possible action, but to date, no reprimand or censure has been issued by the Commissioner of Education.
Despite the legal issues hanging over the Board, the search for a new Superintendent was formally begun in November by hiring the Kentucky School Board Association to shepherd the District through the process with the hope of a hiring coming in February.
2. Fiscal Court action (or lack thereof)
In reviewing the minutes of all 2015 Fiscal Court meetings, one thing becomes clear: the McCreary County Fiscal Court did not accomplish any significant progress over the past 12 months.
Granted, there was not a lot that could be done with a limited budget, and the Court avoided spending money they did not have for the most part, but it was only toward the end of the year before the Court began to take some definitive steps to help strengthen the County’s financial burdens.
Outside of the Airport Board debate, there were only two proposed pieces of legislation that came before the Court that stirred public interest, and neither of those passed.
In February a non-smoking ordinance was put before the court, spurring passionate arguments for and against from the general public, but ultimately the ordinance failed when concerns of liability were raised.
In October the possibility of invoking a nuisance ordinance disappeared quickly after a public hearing was held.
The most significant economic impact the Court had was the abolishing of the Economic Director position in June, a position that has yet to be re-filled.
The majority of the Fiscal Court’s actions taken this past year included hiring’s, appointments and approvals of grant applications.
A hot topic in the 2014 Jailer’s race, the McCreary County Detention Center continues to be a sore spot for citizens, though there does not appear to be any resolution coming soon.
After its closure in 2013, little was done to the old facility to repair or update the building, and it began to fall further in disrepair.
This past summer, prompted by a promise from the Department of Corrections to tour the facility, County Officials embarked on an ambitious two-week project to clean up certain areas of the facility to demonstrate how it could look.
Unimpressed by the cosmetic upgrade, state officials said the building is too old and too run down to consider as an active jail ever again.
In November’s Fiscal Court meeting Jailer Jessie Hatfield stated he was told by DOC officials that the county finances could not support the construction of a new facility, even if it were to be approved.
Meanwhile, the county has yet to make full use of the holding cell at the courthouse, which would allow the holding of prisoners for up to four hours, allowing for fewer transports per day.
Illegal narcotics continue to be a problem in McCreary County, but Sheriff Randy Waters believes he and his fellow law enforcement officers are starting to make inroads into putting a dent in the supply chain.
Sheriff Waters stated this week that more than half of the calls his department worked this past year, his first in office, were in some way drug-related: Either the sale or possession of drugs, or a theft or incident that were fueled in part by drugs.
Methamphetamine is still the leading drug found during investigations, with pills, marijuana and other drugs following.
While there had been a few cases of discovering meth cut with other substances, such as bath salts in the past year, Sheriff Waters stated that did not appear to be a significant number of instances where that occurred.
New laws that make it harder for meth manufacturers to obtain ingredients for making the drug have cut down significantly on local production of meth, but outside sources have started to fill the gap by importing the drug into local distribution chains.
The Sheriff’s Department, Kentucky State Police and other agencies have devoted resources in to several large-scale investigations going after the larger dealers, and have begun to show results.
In July a Hopkinsville man, James Decoursey, was arrested on charges of intending to sell more than 25 grams of meth in the county. Decoursey is still awaiting trial on those charges.
The McCreary County Airport, a somewhat forgotten about facet of the county became a headline grabber in 2015 after the Airport Board went to the Fiscal Court to ask for funding.
In operation since 1968, the Airport had acted autonomously for nearly 50 years, subsiding on grant funding and investments from gas wells and past land transactions. Not once, the Board members claimed, had they every asked the local government for assistance in the form of funding, but a large-scale resurfacing project prompted the request for assistance.
In May Airport Board Chairman Bruce Murphy went before the Fiscal Court, explaining the Board had received a grant to resurface and repair the 20-year old runway, which had developed severe cracks and threatened the safety of the facility.
Of the $660,000 project, the majority would be paid through federal and state funding, but the Board needed to come up with about $17,000 in local funding to start the project. The Court balked at the request, stating the funding was not available at this time.
The following month the Board took steps to implement a countywide tax as a means to come up with the needed funding, stating without the project the airport would have to close.
The tax sparked a legal challenge. The legal authority of the Board was questioned when it was discovered three Board members had been serving on expired terms, and an injunction blocking the tax was filed in court.
While the Board vowed to fight the injunction, the Fiscal Court took matters in their own hands to stop the tax by voting to abolish the Airport Board in August and take over the day-to-day operations of the facility.
Judge Executive Stephens has since stated the resurfacing project will move forward this spring, and plans to establish an advisory board are in the works.
6.New digs for 911
One success the County can boast of from 2015 is the McCreary County Ambulance Service and 911.
In September, after years of promises by County administrations, the 911 Center, in its’ new location, flipped the switch and became fully enhanced for the first time.
Under the direction of Jimmy Barnett and Willie Duncan, EMS/911 is running smoother than it ever has before and actually generating revenue.
Using grant funding the 911 center was outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, making the system on par with some major metropolitan areas. Additionally, the center was moved to a newly constructed facility under the Ambulance Service from the dilapidated structure that had been in use for years.
Meanwhile the Ambulance Service continued to improve, obtaining grants for new equipment and securing funding to rebuild ambulances, making the fleet more reliable.
Also, the addition of a new training level for Advanced EMT’s allowed the service to increase revenue for the county, easing the burden on Occupational Taxes, which had been used to supplement the service in the past.
7. Trail Town
After three years of planning, development and strategic meetings, Historic Stearns was officially designated as a Trail Town, part of the state’s efforts to brand adventure tourism opportunities in the state.
Leading up of the July celebration, attended by First Lady Jane Beshear, McCreary County hosted the Yamacraw 50K trail race, an event that will continue this year.
Hopes are the Trail Town designation will help kick-start adventure tourism in McCreary County, and will allow for state funding and advertising to help promote.
Since the July announcement, seven other Kentucky communities have also received Trail Town designation, bringing the total to 13 in the state.
An election to determine the possibility of bringing alcohol sales to McCreary County set for March 8 brings to close a 2015 where two separate petitions were filed to put the measure on a local ballot. The first effort failed after it was determined not enough valid signatures were present on the petitions, spurring a second effort.
Meanwhile a lawsuit filed after the failed 2012 wet/dry vote remains active in court, even after the three-year period between elections has passed.
Former McCreary Central Girls Basketball and Softball Coach Toby Curry was charged with Unlawful Use of Electronic Means Originating or Received within the Commonwealth to Induce a Minor to Engage in Sexual or other Prohibited Activities, after an investigation found evidence that Curry reportedly used his cell phone to communicate with a minor under the age of 18 with the intention of engaging in sexual acts with the victim.
The case is slated to go to trial next month.
A paralyzing snowstorm hit McCreary County in February bringing bitter cold and more than nine inches of snow in places. The County was spared significant damage from the snow thanks in part to the tireless efforts of McCreary’s Emergency Services. The weather impacted the school district, with 22 days of classes canceled in total.