Coweta County Commission
Inmate labor decision delayed
by SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
Approval of a new inmate labor agreement with the Coweta County School System was delayed at Tuesday’s Coweta Commission meeting.
The commissioners heard from two Cowetans who wanted more information about the agreement, and commissioners themselves had some questions, as well.
The Coweta County Board of Education approved the agreement at its May 14 meeting.
Inmates from the Coweta County Prison had performed lawn maintenance and other projects at schools and school system facilities for the past 21 years — until last fall. In October, an O.P. Evans Middle School student reported he saw an inmate expose himself. The inmate was near a trailer at the back of the school; the student was in a classroom.
Following that incident, the school system stopped using inmate lawn maintenance crews.
The new agreement was to begin on May 28. Instead, the commissioners will reconsider it at their next meeting, June 4. The commissioners said they would like to hear from Warden Bill McKenzie, and might have some questions for the school system.
Coweta residents Linda Menk and Rodney Robinson spoke to the board about the agreement during the public comment portion of the meeting.
The new agreement is more strict than the former agreement when it comes to the days inmates can be on school property. Under the proposed new agreement, no inmate work crews can be on school property when school is in session. They can be on school property during holidays and in the summer.
Previously, inmates could be on middle and high school property during school hours, though they typically would not have been around students. No inmates were allowed during school hours at elementary schools.
In the 21 years inmate labor has been used “there had never been any incidents” prior to the October 2012 incident, said Dean Jackson, public information officer for the school system, on Wednesday.
Since then, the school system has contracted lawn care. Under the new agreement, “lawn care needs at school sites during school days would continue to be outsourced,” Jackson said. “The crews would also be used at non-school sites year-round.”
On Tuesday, Menk asked the commissioners about the cost savings to the school system, and whether a cost analysis had been done, and whether that information is available to the public.
“The school system may have done that,” said Assistant County Administrator Kelly Mickle.
Menk was also concerned the agreement automatically renews each year. She feels it needs to have an end date so that it can be reassessed.
Robinson said he wants to be sure “we have done our due diligence and independently vetted this agreement.”
“I want to ask — Is the school board doing all it can to protect its students?”
Robinson is concerned there are some “gray areas” in the agreement regarding when inmates can be on school property.
“It looks like … students and inmates can be on the property at the same time, is that true?”
“Yes, but only outside the school calendar,” said County Attorney Nathan Lee.
Lee said a meeting was held with several county and school system staff to discuss the agreement.
Many schools are near subdivisions, Robinson said. “Will those areas be notified that inmates will be in the area?”
He also wants to make sure guards will always have visual contact with the inmates.
Chairman Bob Blackburn said he believes inmates will always be under visual supervision.
“I think all of us see the safety of our children and grandchildren as being a priority,” said Commissioner Tim Lassetter. He asked county staff if they feel comfortable “that our students and any of those on the property will be safe at all times.”
“That was everyone’s priority at the meetings,” said Mickle.
Commissioner Paul Poole asked what had been done “to prevent what has happened in the past.”
The main change is not allowing inmates on school property during school days, said Assistant County Administrator Michael Fouts. Only inmates who have achieved “trusty” status can be on school work crews.
Poole said he’d like to have McKenzie at a meeting to discuss the differences between the old and new agreements.
“I would just feel more comfortable … if we had a little bit more specifics,” said Lassetter. Lassetter added anyone who has questions can email commissioners via contact links on www.coweta.ga.us.
The new agreement is expected to save the school system approximately $100,000 a year just in lawn maintenance costs, Jackson said Wednesday.
Inmate crews do other work as well, such as moving furniture.
Major school renovations will be done this summer at Elm Street and Atkinson elementary schools and at East Coweta High School.
Using inmate labor to do the moving work at Elm Street and Atkinson will save the school system about $125,000, Jackson said.
“The crew also performs other duties for the school system, including work at the county warehouse, assistance during stadium preparation and cleanup, and other work that falls within the agreement, all of which provides cost savings for the school system,” Jackson said.
The inmate agreement, as approved by the school board, can be viewed at www.cowetaschools.org. Under the “board of education” menu, click on “school board information” then “board agendas” and choose the May 14, 2013, meeting.