COVINGTON — The Newton County Chamber of Commerce hosted an informal panel Monday afternoon allowing elected officials, including the Board of Education and the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, to present their concerns to local legislators.
Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, Rep. Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers, and Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, were in attendance.
Sheriff Ezell Brown presented a document outlining concerns and considerations that coincide with those identified by Georgia Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Terry Norris:
♦ H.B. 652; Sheriff’s Retirement Fund increasing death benefits from $15,000 to $35,000 with the fee collected from civil action from $1 to $3.
♦ S.B. 249; Peace Officers Annuity and Benefit Fund, which is aimed at improving compensation for retired peace officers by increasing monthly benefits. The proposal also allows jail officers to participate in the program.
♦ H.B. 440; Raising the age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction to 18. The Sheriff’s Association opposes this legislation for several reasons, including increased transports to Regional Youth Detention Centers and the oftentimes violent nature of individuals under the age of 18 which warrants their cases be handled by the adult system.
Brown also asked representatives to consider any upcoming actions in regards to bail reform, limiting the expansion of GBI authority and to prioritize mental health care services.
“Sheriff Andy Hester of Turner County is a newly appointed member of the state Behavioral Health Reform Commission, which seeks to find solutions to Georgia’s mental health crisis,” said Brown. “We will look for proposals during the upcoming session and report accordingly.”
Newton County School System Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey and school board Chairwoman Shakila Henderson-Baker thanked each representative and asked that they keep the students and teachers in mind when making any decisions.
“I would just like to express our gratitude for the ongoing efforts that have been made thus far,” said Fuhrey. “I appreciate that QBE (Quality Based Education) funding is not a part of cuts being considered this session; but I do hope you keep a mindful watch on cuts that impact our supplemental services as well as cuts to mental healthcare that really impact our students and school system.”
Fuhrey said that mental health care and safety are a top priority for Newton County Schools and that one of the board’s legislative priorities is not only to have an increase in mental health care services but to also have a licensed clinician and resource officer at each school to enhance safety.
“I think the vibrancy and the health and wealth of our communities are really contingent on what happens in our public schools,” said Fuhrey. “So as you work diligently to consider all the things brought before you, we ask that you keep a mindful eye on the interconnectedness that we all experience from the Sheriff’s Office, our mental health providers so on and down the line.”
Henderson-Baker expressed the importance of continuing support of the APEX grant and mental health programs, teacher retention efforts and supporting all dual enrollment programs in Georgia.
“Dual enrollment has seen a tremendous increase,” said Henderson-Baker. “This is important for many of our students. Without it, a lot of our students wouldn’t be able to afford college. If we can propose something, where we can preserve this for at least our juniors and seniors, we will gladly do so.”
“In order to continue dual enrollment at the rate we are growing, we have to have a funding model for it moving forward, obviously, and that’s what we are trying to accomplish,” said Strickland.
Belton also spoke on his bill in regards to the Teacher Retirement System.
“What we are trying to do is allow teachers who retired fully to come back and work full time as long as the school system pays the TRS portion,” said Belton. He also said that the way the bill is written, it is only for STEAM teachers but they are considering adding special education. “We are starting small, but we are moving forward.”
The Georgia General Assembly has adopted a calendar for the first 14 days of the 40-day legislative session.
You can find bills, procedures and other documentation at www.legis.ga.gov/en-US/default.aspx.