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Ruling against state law banning mask mandates 'good thing' for local control, White County judge says

Some school districts in the county decided before the fall semester to require masks to combat COVID-19. Other school districts chose to make wearing face masks optional. White County Judge Michael Lincoln is just glad it was their decision to make.

“I would say anytime you can get it down to as locally involved as possible, the outcome would probably be best for the people who live in that local area because they will have the best input,” Lincoln said Wednesday after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox struck down a state law banning mask mandates that he had temporarily blocked in August. “It’s a lot easier for parents to go to a school board meeting than it is for parent to go to a quorum court meeting or a legislative meeting, so if the judge is saying that the state can’t determine that but local school boards can determine that, I guess that’s a good thing. It sounds like that is what he is saying.”

Fox ruled that Act 1002 of 2021, which banned public schools and government agencies from passing a mask mandate, was unconstitutional.

In the conclusions of law section of the ruling concerning county government and public schools, Fox states that “Act 1002 of 2021, as enacted, facially violates the separation of powers clause in that it attempts to usurp the constitutional authority granted to county judges over county buildings and property.

“Act 1002 of 2021, as enacted, violates the equal protection provisions of Article 2 of the Arkansas Constitution, in that it discriminates, without a rational basis, between minors in public schools and minors in private schools.

“Act 1002 of 2021, as enacted, violates ... the Education Article of the Arkansas Constitution, as it is contrary to the state’s obligation to ‘maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools.’

“Act 1002 of 2021, as enacted, violates ... the Education Article of the Arkansas Constitution, as it is contrary to the state’s obligation to ‘adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”

The law had been challenged by two parents with children too young to be vaccinated at the time. After Fox issued his preliminary injunction pending a trial, which was held in November, more than 100 school districts and public charter schools in the state imposed masked mandates, including Searcy, Beebe, Bald Knob, Bradford and White County Central.

The school boards at Riverview, Rose Bud and Pangburn made masks optional at the start of the school year, and their superintendents said because of that, Fox’s ruling doesn’t have much bearing on them.

“It really won’t have any effect on us,” Rose Bud Superintendent Allen Blackwell said. “I mean, we weren’t following a mask mandate anyway, so it won’t have any effect on us at all.”

Pangburn Superintendent David Rolland said, “We always made masks kind of an optional thing at parents’ discretion. I don’t guess it [Fox’s ruling] will change anything for us.”

Some of the school boards in the county that started with a mandate made masks optional during the semester when COVID-19 levels declined in their district. However, the Searcy School District reinstated its mandate for the last week of school before the holiday break after cases spiked “above the designated levels,” prompting a lawsuit to be filed in White County Circuit Court by a group of 11 parents Dec. 15 against the Searcy School Board and Superintendent Dr. Bobby Hart.

The “petition for declaratory judgment” lists Whit Rogers, Shana Rogers, Josh Higginbotham, Lesley Higginbotham, Rick Dardar, Melaine Dardar, Daniel Barnett, Christy Barnett, Greg David, Shannon Davis and Kathryn Corder as the petitioners. White County Circuit Judges Craig Hannah, Daniel Brock and Mark Pate have recused themselves as the presiding judge in the case, and no date has been set on when it will be heard.

Lincoln mentioned the lawsuit, as well as the White County Quorum Court passing a resolution disapproving of vaccines being mandated, in his comments on Fox’s ruling, which is expected to be appealed.

“We can pass something that kind of mirrors what we think our voting public would agree with, but that doesn’t mean that it could legally or constitutionally stand,” Lincoln said. “Parents can rally at a school board meeting a lot easier than they can at the state Capitol and most of the local patrons know the school board members. They meet them at the coffee shop, they call them at home, they go to the local school board meetings. I think anytime decisions can be made locally, the better they are in my opinion.”


Coming out of a fog

Although winter weather has stayed away for the holidays, morning fog has settled in the past couple of days, shrouding areas of White County, including downtown Searcy on Thursday morning. Rain chances have increased for today, which may affect some of the activities planned for the New Year’s Eve ball drop on Spring Street and Market Avenue that is expected to feature big-screen football and urban laser tag ($5 fast pass) beginning at 6:30 p.m., blacklight bingo and a dance party ($5 fast pass) at Robbins Sanford Grand Hall at 6:30 p.m., a laser show and street party at 9 p.m. and the ball drop at midnight. A decision on activities that cannot be held in the rain, such as laser tag due to insurance liability, is expected to be made by noon. If a paid activity is canceled, tickets will be refunded, according to Searcy Beats and Eats co-coordinator Mat Faulkner.


News
Beebe council to hold special meeting to discuss parks director job; 13 applicants through Tuesday

The Beebe City Council will hold a special meeting Jan. 10 to discuss the selection process for its next parks and recreation director.

As of late Tuesday afternoon, the city had received 13 applicants to replace Lynn Hatcher, who is retiring after holding the job for 10 years.

Robertson said Hatcher will continue in his position until his replacement is hired. “I know Mr. Hatcher is planning toward a transition. He went ahead and ordered all the supplies for the 2022 ball program. He ordered all the pool supplies for 2022 and put them in stock.” Robertson mentioned that there is a supply shortage in regard to the supplies being ordered early.

City Clerk-Treasurer Carol Westergren added that registration for the city’s spring and summer sports programs opens Jan. 5 online.

In an earlier interview, Robertson said “I think Lynn wanted a person to build the program for 2022 and start the program with their agenda as he just assists them up to a certain date. And, he was planning his retirement for up to a couple of years now, so he had planned for this retirement date. It is not something that is a surprise to us.”

Focusing on what the city is looking for in its next parks and recreation director, he said “I think we’re looking for more of a candidate who is personable with people and can work socially with people and the council and that has been trained and qualified and has some experience in parks and recreation.”

Those wishing to apply for the position can pick up an application at Beebe City Hall, 321 N. Elm St., or they may click the link online for the position at beebeark.org.

The help-wanted ad reads: “The Parks and Recreation Director position is a key leadership position responsible for all the operations, activities and policies of the department. The director will administer the initial development of park management protocols and subsequently, the ongoing management of all aspects of park operations for the City of Beebe, including general maintenance, facility management, property management and public safety.

“The director will be responsible for both the daily operations, as well as long-term planning for the future operational needs for the Parks Department to include development, marketing, implementation and supervision of both the athletic and recreational programs.”

The city’s 2022 budget, which has to be approved before Feb. 1, also will be discussed at the special meeting, which will be held at City Hall at 6:30 p.m. that day.


News
Dec. 30 coronavirus statistics

COVID-19 statistics

Cases

54,054,535 in United States (285,808,213 worldwide)

Deaths

823,743 in United States (5,426,963 worldwide)

Arkansas

562,529 cumulative cases, 9,131 deaths; 14,665 cases in White County, including 287 active, and 210 deaths as of 3:30 p.m. Thursday


News
Pangburn, Rose Bud awarded STOP Violence Act grants for school safety

Two White County school districts were among four districts in the state to be awarded a share of nearly $126 million in funding from the Department of Justice to advance school safety under the STOP School Violence Act.

The Rose Bud School District was awarded $217,664, while the Pangburn School District received $86,395. The other two Arkansas school districts to receive the grants were Pocahontas ($198,461) and Texarkana ($500,000).

The grants “will help institute safety measures in and around primary and secondary schools, support school violence prevention efforts, provide training to school personnel and students and implement evidence-based threat assessments,” according to the Department of Justice.

Pangburn Superintendent David Rolland said his district applied for the grant because “we are wanting to upgrade some of our security locks in the buildings and just try to do some stuff like that. We are happy we got it. It’s one of those things you apply for and you’re not sure, you just have to wait on the process to go out. We were hoping, but as you know, those [grants] are quite competitive, so we weren’t completely sure.”

Rolland said when school resumes next week, the district will find out more about the grant award and make sure it does everything the right way. “We got some plans for it to make our buildings more secure.”

Rose Bud Superintendent Allen Blackwell said his district was “kind of expecting it.”

“We’re working with a group that actually helped write the grant for us and they kind of walk us through it,” Blackwell said. “It’s going to allow us to put in some cameras and pretty much cover the whole school, so that will help us with some safety, contact tracing and things like that.

“We are excited. We will have to do the bid process and all that for the cameras. It’s going to be good. We have a camera system, but it’s kind of like anytime something occurs, ‘Darn, I wish we had a camera here.’ So it’s going to help us cover the school district better.”

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a release that the Department of Justice “has no greater responsibility than protecting Americans from harm.”Schools must be safe places to learn, and today’s investment of more than $125 million under the STOP School Violence Act will help ensure that they are.”

The Students, Teachers and Officers Preventing School Violence Act of 2018 gives the Justice Department the authority to provide awards directly to states, local government, Indian tribes and public agencies, such as school districts and law enforcement agencies, to improve security on school grounds through evidence-based school safety programs. It also provides grants to ensure a positive school climate by helping students and teachers recognize, respond quickly to and help prevent acts of violence.


News
Alexander 27-year-old found with 16 stolen credit cards given three years in prison

Railey

Hatchett

A 27-year-old from Alexander was sentenced earlier this month to three years in prison after being found with 16 credit/debit cards that did not belong to him during a traffic stop in June.

Aaron Lee Railey pleaded guilty in White County Circuit Court in a negotiated deal to 14 counts of class D felony theft by receiving (credit/debit card) and class A misdemeanor theft by receiving less or equal to $1,000. He received three years in the Arkansas Department of Correction for the felony charges, with 162 days of credit, and a year in the White County Detention Center for the misdemeanor, to run concurrently.

Railey was pulled over June 27 on Arkansas Highway 31 in Beebe for having an expired registration. Because he had “several warrants for his arrest, including a warrant from the Arkansas Board of Parole,” Railey was taken into custody.

The 16 debit/credit cards “that did not belong to Railey nor would he have any legal reason to be in possession of them” were found during a search of his vehicle, Detective Jeremy L. Bokker for the Beebe Police Department wrote in the affidavit. There also was an iPhone inside the vehicle, “complete with a receipt containing the last four digits of one of the stolen credit/debit cards.”

Additional property found to be stolen also reportedly was in the vehicle.

In another case, Corey Terrell Hatchett, 38, of Jacksonville was sentenced to two years in the Department of Correction after pleading guilty to class D felony theft of property and class C misdemeanor obstructing governmental operations in a negotiated deal. He received a year in jail for the misdemeanor charge that runs concurrently with this prison sentence.

According to the affidavit written by Detective Andrew Ripka for the Searcy Police Department, Hatchett was arrested for shoplifting after “pushing a shopping cart full of large electronics merchandise” out of the Walmart Supercenter on East Race Avenue on Oct. 24, 2020, around 1:15 p.m. The items were valued at $1,051.70.

When stopped by patrolman JL Tillet, Hatchett reportedly gave the “name and date of birth to a deceased person and did not have identification with him.” He was fingerprinted and identified at the White County Law Enforcement Center, and it was learned that he had a “previous felony conviction for theft of property and previous misdemeanor conviction for obstruction of governmental operations.”

Video footage from Walmart and body camera footage from Tillet were obtained as evidence of the crime.

In another case, Matthew Hunter Lansford, 28, of Beebe was given two years in Arkansas Community Correction after pleading guilty to class C felony forgery.

Lansford was reported to Beebe police Sept. 9, 2019, by his former employer, Jeff’s Auto and Wrecker, for cashing two company checks totaling more than $2,100. The owner of the business said Lansford was not authorized to cash the checks. Additionally, he said that Lansford had stolen a Snap-On jump-pack valued at $301.80 and power saw valued at $200.

Surveillance photos from Centennial Bank “clearly identified” Lansford, who was interviewed by Detective Brad Wiley on Oct. 10, Wiley wrote in the affidavit. Lansford reportedly admitted to cashing the checks, but said he had the owner’s permission. He also said that he had returned the jump-pack to the owner.

Later, the business owner told Wiley that a tow customer had reported to him that “someone” had stolen a cordless nailer valued at $319.34 and digital camera valued at $292.26 from her vehicle while “it was in his impound lot” Aug. 14, 2019. He said that Lansford admitted to the thefts and replaced the property.

All of the stolen property was found at Beebe Pawn Shop, Wiley wrote. The jump-pack and saw had been sold by Lansford on July 16 and the nailer and camera Aug. 16.


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