The Wilkes County Board of Education unanimously approved allowing near-normal high school graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2021 Monday night.
The ceremonies will be held May 28, with May 29 as the rain date.
The board approved the recommendations of Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd for the ceremonies, which included holding them outdoors if possible; with capacity limits in compliance with Gov. Roy Cooper’s latest executive order; with physical distancing “to the best extent possible;” with people in the same households sitting together as much as possible; with masks required for everyone over age 5; and with screening protocols and hand sanitizer present.
Last year, Wilkes high school seniors graduated one at a time with only immediate family members and a couple of school officials present due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
East Wilkes, West Wilkes, North Wilkes and Wilkes Central high schools will have their graduation ceremonies in their respective football stadiums. The outdoor location of the Wilkes Early College High School ceremony hasn’t been determined yet.
Early College High School
Wilkes Early College High School Principal Michelle Shepherd said the location of the WECHS graduation ceremony and number of guests allowed are among topics she and Wilkes Community College staff will discuss in a meeting being held Thursday to finalize these arrangements. Wilkes Early College High School is on the WCC campus.
Shepherd said her school’s graduation ceremony is scheduled to start at 6 p.m.
“WCC has been a great partner and I know will continue to support our school in the best way possible during the graduation ceremony. We will adhere to all safety guidelines from our local Health Department Board, local Board of Education, and WCC recommendations with social distancing, temperature checks and required masks,” said Shepherd.
“WECHS staff will be on hand to administer our wellness checks of every guest on site. Graduation will look different this year with social distancing in place and limited guests, but we are excited to have group graduation unlike last year with the individual ceremonies,” she added.
The North Wilkes graduation ceremony will start at 8 p.m. in the school’s Raner Wiles Stadium, with each graduating senior receiving six admission tickets.
“We will follow all recommendations from the Department of Public Instruction and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services,” said North Wilkes High Principal David Johnson.
Johnson noted that North’s graduation ceremonies are normally in the school’s gym, so holding it outside will be a new experience for the school.
He added that considering all the changes during the last year, these plans are subject to change.
West Wilkes High School’s ceremony will start at 8 p.m. in the school’s football stadium, with each senior receiving six tickets for graduation.
West Wilkes Principal Amanda Pruitt said the number of tickets was determined by the size of West’s senior class and the capacity of the football stadium.
“Temperature screenings will be conducted upon entrance; masks are required for all attendees over the age of 5; and social distancing will be in place. Hand sanitizing stations will be set up at all entrance and exit points as well as throughout the venue,” she added.
“For West Wilkes High school, having an outdoor graduation ceremony is the most noticeable difference. An indoor ceremony in the gymnasium has been a tradition for many years. I truly believe that folks are grateful for the opportunity to have an in-person ceremony this year and I am looking forward to celebrating the accomplishments of the Class of 2021.”
East Wilkes High School’s ceremony will start at 6 p.m. at Ebb Tharpe Field. The rain date and time is 10 a.m. the next day.
Dr. Chad Mann, East Wilkes principal, said about attendance at East’s ceremony, “Based on the number of graduates and the way we are laying out the ceremony, our graduates will sit in our home bleachers (socially distanced) while our families sit, socially distanced, on our football field. This layout will ensure both students and guests are safely following CDC and Wilkes County Health Department protocols. We strongly feel that we can comfortably seat our graduates’ immediate family members without the need to distribute tickets.”
Mann said graduates, staff and special speakers for the ceremony will be screened upon entering the school. “We will establish an entrance and an exit area at our football field so no guests are flowing into the same traffic patterns. Everyone in the graduation party will be wearing face masks and will follow CDC guidelines on spacing.
“Guests that arrive together are asked to sit together and to social distance at an appropriate length from others while seated on the football field. We will have staff assisting with this effort to ensure protocols are followed.”
Mann said the East Wilkes Class of 2021 has handled this year with immense grace and patience. “It has frequently been noted by our teachers that this group of students ‘expects nothing and is happy with anything they are given.’ They have risen to this hardship and we want to celebrate them by having a ‘flipped graduation.’ ”
He explained that the ceremony will be unlike any ever held at East Wilkes High School. “Students will sit where families have always been while families will come out, bringing their own chairs and setting up on our football field, to watch their graduates receive their diploma in a totally new way. Both our students and families seem excited to have the opportunity to actually have a ceremony after such a hard year and are appreciative to our school board members and superintendent, Mr. Byrd, for giving us this opportunity.”
Wilkes Central High School’s graduation ceremony will begin at 8 p.m. in Wes Steele Stadium. The rain date and time is 8 p.m. the next day.
Dr. Dion Stocks, Wilkes Central principal, said each graduate will receive eight admission tickets to ensure social distancing and comply with state-mandated COVID-19-related capacity limits for the school’s stadium.
Stocks said families will be asked to sit together in the stands while wearing masks during the event. He said guidelines provided by the school district, N.C. Department of Health and Human Resources and N.C. Department of Public Instruction will be followed. Stocks said these include but aren’t limited to:
• everyone 5 years and older must wear a mask while on campus and during the ceremony. Wilkes Central will not provide masks so all visitors will be asked to have one upon entering the stadium;
• there will be multiple hand sanitation stations located inside the stadium;
• families will be asked to sit together and social distance from other families in the stands;
• families will be asked to remain in the stands during the ceremony.
“We will work to ensure “one way” entrance and exits utilizing the last name of the graduate for specific gates of entry and exit. Students will recess and will not gather on the field following the ceremony,” said Stocks.
He said these protocols may change as further direction is received from local and state leaders.
“Overall, safety protocols will impact the ceremony not only by our visitors in the stand but as our students receive their diplomas crossing the stage. We will not gather on the field following the ceremony which will be a change for our students and families. Our goal is to ensure the safety of our families and graduates,” said Stocks.
Inmates being released from the Wilkes County Jail now have the choice of taking lifesaving medication with them as they go.
The jail received a donation of 400 Evzio kits from Wilkes County-based Project Lazarus, each with two doses of the opioid overdose-reversing medication naloxone.
The first kits arrived in early March and Fred Brason, Project Lazarus founder and president, brought more on Friday.
Major Jason Whitley, Wilkes County Jail director, said the jail’s nurse already used the devices to save the lives of two inmates who went into opioid overdose.
Naloxone rapidly stops an opioid overdose by reversing and blocking the effects of opioids. It can quickly restore normal breathing to a person if their breathing has slowed or stopped because of an opioid overdose.
Examples of opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, heroin and fentanyl.
Whitley said each inmate is being offered an Evzio kit when he or she is released from the jail. Educational videos on the devices are available to inmates while they’re in jail
He said it’s hard to say at this early stage how long it will take to give out all of the kits, but he estimated two to three months. The Wilkes County Jail processes about 3,500 people as inmates a year and averages housing 145-155 inmates at a time.
The Evzio devices are auto-injectable, which means they’re spring-loaded and automatically insert a needle and deliver naloxone when pressed against the body.
The needle retracts back into its housing when the applicator device is no longer pressed against the skin. The needle isn’t visible before, during or after injection.
The device typically is used on person’s thigh without the person having to undress. It can be self-applied or by one person to another.
The device is a little smaller than an old-fashioned flip cell phone.
Project Lazarus received the devices at no charge from Direct Relief, which distributes prescription medication, vaccines and medical supplies donated by manufacturers. Project Lazarus and Direct Relief are both nonprofits.
Drug maker Kaleo manufactures Evzio auto-injectors and donated them to Direct Relief.
Project Lazarus has naloxone kits available to individuals, families, community organizations, health departments, law enforcement personnel and others at no charge.
Established in 2007, as a response to high overdose mortality rates in Wilkes, Project Lazarus helped dramatically decrease Wilkes’ overdose mortality rate by devising and implementing what is now known as the Project Lazarus Model.
This model includes working to make naloxone available to the public in various ways and through multiple partnerships.
Each kit has a Project Lazarus Overdose Prevention DVD, step-by-step instruction booklet on reviving an overdose victim, a naloxone rescue kit location card to help locate the kit in case of emergency, a NC Good Samaritan Law (SB20) informational card that explains the legal side of administering naloxone to an overdose victim, and two nasal atomizers for nasal naloxone administration.
Efforts to slow down traffic on North Wilkesboro streets have been successful, and more steps will be taken this year, said Town Manager Wilson Hooper.
Hooper briefed the town commissioners on “traffic-calming” data during the board’s regular meeting held Tuesday on Zoom in the North Wilkesboro Police Department’s training room.
“We feel pretty good about some of the steps we’ve taken,” said Hooper. “The heavy truck ordinance (30-by-30-inch “No Trucks”) signs should be posted in four to six weeks, and there’s more to come, including possibly curve squaring.”
Hooper said narrowing travel lanes on Sixth Street and installing a digital speed sign on Eighth Street “have had some statistically significant effects on speed and volume.”
He added that the likely introduction of speed humps are “pricey but a few will deter traffic from entering the grid” of downtown residential streets.
On Feb. 25, the commissioners approved an amendment to town code prohibiting heavy truck traffic (Class 6 and above, unless permitted) down Finley Avenue and other grid junctions that include Hinshaw, Elizabeth, Franklin and D streets.
Hooper said earlier that heavy trucks are using these streets as cut-throughs and are impinging on residents’ quiet enjoyment of their homes. The trucks have also been observed running stop signs and exceeding posted speed limits, he said.
After an initial period of issuing warnings to violators, fines collected from enforcement of the proposed ordinance would be sent, by law, to Wilkes County public schools. A violation of the ordinance would be considered a misdemeanor and be subject to a $50 fine.
Additional funding to complete the splash pad at Smoot Park received mixed support from the commissioners on April 6.
By a 3-2 margin, the board approved moving $100,000 from the town’s contingency fund into the parks and recreation budget and using an additional $60,000 from the parks and recreation savings to complete the splash pad.
Commissioner Debbie Ferguson made the motion to approve the funding and Bert Hall seconded it. Commissioner Angela Day voted for the funding while Andrew Palmer and Michael Parsons voted against it after voicing concerns over the project budget.
Prior to the vote, Town Manager Wilson Hooper informed the board that it would likely cost around $45,000 to tear down the current infrastructure at the splash pad and fill it in. This includes repaying a $29,503 grant to Lowe’s Companies Inc. if the splash pad is not completed.
“This is moving the money into place and giving us (town staff) the go-ahead” to complete the splash pad with a new contractor, said Hooper. “It’s not the last step, but the next step.”
During closed session on Feb. 2, the commissioners agreed to break ties with the project’s original contractor, North Wilkesboro-based Mastin Aquatic Recreation LLC, for breach of contract.
The town’s legal intentions were included in a March 19 certified letter to owner James “Buster” Mastin, which said the town would finish the project with another contractor and seek reimbursement from Mastin before it can seek a legal judgment against the company.
Mastin started work on the splash pad in the fall of 2017, with completion scheduled by Dec. 1, 2017, under his contract with the town. His commitment to finish was later revised to the fall of 2019.
The town paid Mastin $120,930 for his work on the project through June 7, 2018. In July 2019, its estimated cost was $130,000 due to upgrades required by the county health department. The original estimate was $85,794.
Mastin said some of the delays in the project were partly due to changes the town made in specifications and equipment after the grant from Lowe’s was received in February 2018.
Town staff now estimate it'll cost about $160,000 to complete the splash pad.
Also on April 6, the board:
• swore in new police officers Donald Caudle and Bryan Baity. The oath of office was administered by Mayor Robert Johnson;
• approved the donation of a failed, surplus generator from the town’s wastewater treatment plant to John Triplett of Wilkes Ministries of Hope;
• approved the milling and repaving of portions of 9th and C streets south to the Central Business District loop. The work is expected to cost $132,000 from Powell Bill funding received for the 2020-21 fiscal year; and
• called for a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. on May 4 concerning state-required updates to chapters in town code regarding general provisions, administrative, buildings and zoning ordinances.
Ronda’s delinquent audit reports and Elkin’s decision to double what it charges for water sold to the eastern Wilkes County town were among issues discussed in a three-hour Ronda town board retreat at town hall on April 8.
A CPA firm hired to audit several years of Ronda’s financial records has essentially completed this work for 2017-18, but wants an explanation of an “unusually large entry” before releasing an exception-free audit report, said Michael Boaz, Ronda’s part-time finance director. The firm was Rives & Associates until its name was changed to RH CPAs
Boaz said in an interview that the entry in question is for revenue that balanced finances of Ronda’s water system in a financial statement prepared three years ago by Robert P. Huntley CPA for Ronda and used by RH CPAs in its audit. He couldn’t recall the amount.
Boaz said he’s confident that he and the CPA who prepared the financial statement talked about the entry in question, but neither could remember the reason for the entry because “it took them (Rives & Associates and now RH CPAs) three years to do the audit.”
“They will try to tell you that it’s the (town) staff’s fault and it’s not the staff’s fault. They had everything they needed in time to do that work,” said Boaz, who also serves as Pilot Mountain’s town manager.
Boaz said Rives & Associates had a lot of internal issues over the last three years. “They had a partner go to prison and they changed the name of the company.”
He said RH CPAs gave Ronda two options with the 2017-18 audit report. He said the first is revising the scope of audit, which he said he didn’t fully understand, and the second is for Ronda to agree to receive an audit report with a “less than stellar opinion” from RH CPAs saying the firm didn’t understand the entry in question so it wasn’t giving an opinion on this.
He recommended that the Ronda board vote to approve the second option in a regular meeting.
Boaz said it’s not a good option, but the Ronda board has little choice since the town’s audit reports for fiscal 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20 still haven’t been sent to the N.C. Local Government Commission (LGC) and the 2020-21 audit should start in about two months.
Boaz said the other part of his recommendation is that the Ronda board hire a different CPA firm for the fiscal 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21 audits. He said he had a company in mind. “The LGC has been understanding, but at some point, they won’t be understanding anymore,” he added.
State statutes require that local governments be audited annually by a CPA firm and that copies of the audit reports be submitted to the LGC as soon as possible after the end of the fiscal year. The reports are considered late after a one-month grace period.
Ronda and Wilkesboro received a warning from the LGC in November for not submitting audit reports for fiscal 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19. The state treasurer’s office said they were given 30 days to show they were correcting the issues by hiring companies to complete and file the audits. The LGC is a division of the state treasurer’s office.
The state treasurer’s office said Monday that the LGC still hasn’t received the Ronda and Wilkesboro audit reports for 2018-19 and 2019-20, in addition to Ronda’s report for 2017-18.
Wilkesboro officials attributed the town’s late audit report to problems experienced by the company doing the audits, Rives & Associates. Wilkesboro now uses a different CPA firm.
“We utilize an outside resource for some of our report writing and they are currently working through tax time. I would anticipate the 2019 (audit) report being to the LGC by the end of May, with the 2020 shortly thereafter,” said Wilkesboro Finance Director Bob Urness.
Ronda water issuesThe Ronda board also discussed the Elkin town board’s recent decision to charge Ronda a bulk water rate of $7 per 1,000 gallons starting July 1, up from $3.50 now.
Elkin Town Manager Brent Cornelison told Ronda Mayor Rhejean Benge in a March 8 letter that under a 2010 water purchase agreement between Elkin and Ronda, the rate should have been raised periodically in recent years but mistakenly wasn’t. Cornelison said Elkin officials discovered this after officials of the two towns met in April 2019, and began discussing the possibility of Ronda becoming part of the Elkin water system and getting all of its water from Elkin.
Ronda now buys an average of about 750,000 gallons of water per month from Elkin. That’s more than half of what Ronda uses and includes what goes to East Wilkes middle and high schools. The rest of Ronda’s water comes from a town-owned well. Ronda has around 350 water customers.
At the meeting in April 2019, the Ronda and Elkin boards agreed to authorize a needs assessment study on their respective water systems to help guide their decisions. Ronda officials have said the study should help them decide between funding Ronda well and water tank improvements or consolidating with Elkin’s system. The study was funded with a $50,000 N.C. Community Development Block Grant.
Ron Niland, Ronda’s part-time management consultant, said during the April 6 retreat that the study hasn’t been completed. Niland said earlier that he hoped to have a representative of the company doing the study discuss the results at the retreat. He said in an interview that a spokesman for the firm stated progress was slowed by Ronda staff not providing certain information it needed, but he discounted this.
Niland also said at the retreat that state officials want small water systems to merge with larger systems due to economies of scale savings. He recommended that Ronda Mayor Rhejean Benge contact Cornelius to discuss next steps, but then asked her to first arrange a meeting with Ronda water system operator Jeff Jones to discuss the status of Ronda’s well.
Kevin Reece, a newly-elected Ronda commissioner, suggested having a representative of a well drilling company at the meeting. Reese also suggested exploring ways to increase water from the town-owned well already used, another well no longer used due to reduced output or some other well.
Niland mentioned the possibility of using part of about $120,000 expected for Ronda through the U.S Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act on Ronda water system improvements. He said $60,000 is expected this year and the other half the next year. It must be spent within three years.
Benge said Elkin violated terms of its agreement with Ronda by not periodically increasing its Ronda rate instead of doubling it all at once.
Cornelison said in an interview that $7 per thousand is the rate charged for other Elkin water customers, both in and out of town. “We are waiting for Ronda to respond with a proposal now,” he said.
Storm water workRonda has about $100,000 in N.C. Powell Bill funds saved up and Niland recommended budgeting a portion of it to address the town’s storm water problems. Ronda receives about $17,000 annually in Powell Bill funds.
Boaz said a town’s allocation of Powell Bill funds is based on its population and maintained street mileage. He said the money must be spent on repaving, sidewalk work, plowing snow, storm water repairs involving streets and for certain other things. Powell Bill funds normally must be spent within 10 years of receipt, but Ronda sought and received permission from the state a few years ago to extend this to 20 years.
Boaz said Ronda’s finances fared better during the pandemic than expected. He said this has been the case for many North Carolina towns.
Ronda budgeted $115,000 for sales tax revenue in the fiscal year ending June 30 and already has about $96,000. “You’re averaging about $12,000 a month in sales tax revenue so you’ll be ahead of what was budgeted by the end of the year,” he said.
Boaz said property tax revenue so far is about what was expected.
He said there have been a few unexpected expenses but general fund expenditures overall are in line with what was budgeted. Boaz said Ronda’s water and sewer fund is doing very well, with 83% of budgeted revenue already collected.
“Obviously, the thing hanging out there is the rate increase from Elkin. We’re really going to have to address that” in the fiscal 2021-22 budget. He said that unless Ronda is able to substantially reduce the volume of water purchased from Elkin, a substantial increase in the Ronda water rate is needed in the 2021-22 budget.
He said a 3-4% increase in sales tax revenue is projected statewide, but added that he believes it’s more reasonable to expect a 2% increase in Wilkes.
Boaz said that the last time he checked, Ronda had a little over $100,000 in its available fund balance. He said that’s very strong because it’s close to 100% of the town’s general fund budget.
Also during the retreat, the Ronda board appeared to reach a consensus on replacing the roof on town hall due to leaks rather than continuing with piecemeal repairs. The town hall is the former Ronda High School gym.