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New Newton County School System superintendent is top story in 2013

COVINGTON — The Newton County School System’s changing of the guard was the top story of 2013 in Newton County. Not only did the Board of Education hire a new superintendent, but it also hired the first woman to fill that role.

Samantha Fuhrey, who had served the school system as deputy superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, was appointed to the post in May. She replaced Gary Mathews, who retired at the end of June.

Fuhrey’s contract extends through June 30, 2016. It may be renewed, extended or renegotiated at any time by a mutual agreement or at the time of the superintendent’s annual evaluation.

Fuhrey was the only internal candidate to make the Board of Education’s top three. The other two candidates were Samuel Paul Light, superintendent of the Illini Bluffs Community Unit School District #327 in Glasford, Ill.; and Noris Felicia Price, deputy superintendent for the Clarke County School District in Athens. The school board received a total of 34 applications for the position.

• Questions about Newton County’s bid process in 2013 led to a change in the county’s lawn maintenance contractor and greater focus on the way bids are handled.

Newton County commissioners voted in February to bid out the county’s lawn care maintenance contract after questions arose about a five-year contract that had been awarded to Durden’s Lawn Maintenance without a bid.

Durden had held the contract for the previous 12 years. However, an examination of business license files in February by the Citizen showed that Durden’s Lawn Maintenance did not have a valid license. In addition, Durden’s had operated without a license from 2002 to 2006, during which time the company had the county contract.

Owner Billy Durden said he did not know he needed a license during those years because he operated out of his home.

In late February, commissioners took a different tack and voted to put the lawn care maintenance contract out to bid. An RFP for the work was issued in March.

Commission Chairman Keith Ellis said at the time that the county would have a “much clearer” purchasing policy in the future, likely spelling out how often contracts must be put out to bid.

Then, in May, the county awarded the lawn maintenance contract to G & G Landscape Management Group of Rockdale County. The total cost of the one-year contract is $67,680, nearly $30,000 less than the one approved earlier in the year for Durden’s Lawn Maintenance.

• A deputy with the Newton County Sheriff’s Office lost his job in September and will likely lose his freedom this year after he was arrested as part of an FBI undercover drug investigation.

Darrell Mathis was arrested Sept. 9 after he allegedly sold 1 pound of marijuana to an undercover FBI agent. Mathis pleaded guilty to a charge of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime in early December; he is scheduled to be sentenced in March.

Based on the investigation, Mathis reportedly brought his NCSO badge and firearm to a meeting with undercover FBI agents regarding the sale of additional quantities of marijuana. During the meeting, Mathis told one of the undercover agents, whom he believed to be a drug dealer, that he was a police officer, pulled out his badge, and stated, “Don’t worry, I’m on your side.”

Mathis was originally charged with distributing marijuana in addition to the firearms charge. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the drug charge was not pursued as part of the Mathis’ plea negotiations. The weapons charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison, as well as a maximum fine of $250,000.

Mathis had been with the Sheriff’s Office since 2008 and had no prior disciplinary problems, according to the NCSO. He was terminated shortly after his arrest.

• The Newton County Board of Commissioners was in the spotlight again in 2013 when an uptick in the county’s population triggered an automatic pay increase for commissioners and constitutional officers.

Other notable stories in 2013 were:

• Several homes were destroyed and one woman was injured when a tornado touched down in Mansfield in April.

Most of the damage was centered in the area around Kellogg and Hardeman streets where four to five homes were destroyed.

The National Weather Service confirmed that an EF-2 tornado — which is when winds are between 110 and 115 mph — had touched down in the town. The tornado was 175 yards wide and left a path of damage 7.5 miles long.

• In one of the more unusual stories of the year in Newton County, two 6-year-old boys were bitten by a wild fox on the playground at Rocky Plains Elementary School.

The incident happened around noon on May 22 when about 50 kindergarten students were on the playground, according to the school system. A teacher was able to kick the fox and get it away from the students.

The two boys were treated at the school and then taken to the hospital. They were treated for possible rabies infection.

Traps were set for the fox but it was never captured. Outside activities for students were suspended at the school until it was deemed it was safe for them to resume.

Later in the year, another fox scare was reported in the area of South Salem Elementary and Liberty Middle schools.

In September a parent reported a fox sighting on school grounds. Traps were set for the animal and children were kept off the playground.

However, it was later determined that the animal was actually a coyote. According to the state Department of Natural Resources, it is not unusual to see coyotes in urban settings, but they are typically harmless to people.

• In another education-related story, Newton County voters approved an extension of the special purpose local option sales tax for education in a March referendum.

Although 56.65 percent of voters were in favor of the $45 million referendum, turnout was underwhelming, with just 3 percent of registered voters making it to the polls.

Funds raised by the 1-percent sales tax will be used for property tax relief, school security and technology, student transportation and school maintenance and construction.