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Board of Commissioners commits to new middle school funding

WEST JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Board of Commissioners met in regular session on Monday, June 7, in The Venue at the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce, due to scheduling conflicts at the original meeting place in the courthouse.

Chair Todd McNeill, Vice Chair William Sands and commissioners Chuck Olive, Jerry Powers and Jonathan Jordan were in attendance along with County Manager Adam Stumb, Clerk Ashley Honeycutt and Finance Officer Sandy Long.

The meeting included presentations from the Ashe County Museum of History, the Ashe Medication Assistance Program, Tax Administration, Building Inspectors, County Management and the Ashe County Board of Education.

Gary Poe with the Museum of History presented the board with the opening of their newest exhibit, a Native American exhibit. The exhibit includes a handmade mask from the ground, hundred-year-old corn bread, arrowheads and more. Poe invited the board and the community to come out to the museum Friday, June 11, at 5:30 p.m. to celebrate the new exhibit.

Dianne Harless with the Ashe Medication Assistance Program then gave an overview of the program to the commissioners. This program allows those in need of medication cost assistance to become eligible for free medication. The medications are ordered directly from drug companies and are dispensed from local pharmacies with a service charge per prescription In the past year, the program has provided around $2.5 million worth of medication to their patients. They do not provide pain medicine, but they do provide heart medication, insulin and more. When applying for the program, you will need your Social Security statement, a check or awards benefit letter, a copy of your most recent month’s pay stub, the top sheet from your most recent IRS 1040 from and Schedule C and your current medications or prescriptions. No hand-written notes will be accepted. The Ashe Medication Assistance Program is located at 225 Court Street in Jefferson. Harless encourages community members to call (336) 846-6001 or (336) 846-6002 for more information.

Tax Administrator Chris Lambert then asked the board for approval of the collection of Lansing and Jefferson’s property tax. The commissioners approved the request.

Next up in presentations was building inspector Jonathan Stansberry, discussing the current fees for inspections. With inspections being stretched out across the county, Powers suggested that building inspectors add additional fees for additional trips, which the board later adopted.

Stumb discussed county property leases which are now due for renewal, mainly focusing on the businesses and programs which occupy Family Central.

“The Cosmetology program at Wilkes Community College may move out and onto another building, but we do have others interested in the space if it falls out,” said Stumb in discussion of profit and leasing concerns. The board further spoke on the different costs for leasers as some do not utilize the given utilities as much as others, such as water and electricity. The board approved the renewals.

Dr. Eisa Cox along with the Ashe County Board of Education entered the meeting and sought out a commitment from the commissioners to provide $61.3 million, minus a $15 million grant from the BOE, for the new middle school project. The middle school itself will be 164,771 square feet along with all-inclusive athletic fields. Cox said the project itself is still in design but will hopefully have a starting date in August.

Commissioners raised questions on the different costs of the school and current building supplies and finances.

“Our local government financing is good, but prices have only increased every year, even with COVID-19 for supply and cost per square foot,” said Powers.

McNeill said he’d like to chip away at anything they can to lower the cost of the project, hoping both the boards of commissioners and the education can create a joint effort in funding.

In response to the current prices for supplies and materials, Stumb said that prices have never been this high, but interest has never been this low. He said that even with the board of education’s $15 million grant, the project is going to be costly for the county, but he hopes it can go smoothly for everyone.

“We’ve gone with the most economical version of the school so far,” said Cox. In the initial designs, the building was too small, as the state requires a one to 29 teacher to student ratio. In previous years, the middle school has only been occupied by seventh and eighth graders, but with the addition of sixth grade, the Board of Education has seen setbacks in both design and starting times.

“As of now, we’re hoping to see a completion date around September of 2024,” said Construction Manager at Risk Mike Kesterson. “It’s going to be a waiting game as we begin to set a start date along with working around this upcoming winter.”

Cox said she and the Board of Education are fully behind Kesterson and his team.

“I trust that Vannoy’s know what they’re doing as they’ve been doing this for a long, long time,” Cox said.

In addition to the middle school funding, Cox spoke on the needs for the current schools such as technology, new windows and HVAC systems for the elementary school gyms. It is her hope that they can use their ESSER funds, an established part of the Education Stabilization Fund in the CARES Act which sub-grant local education systems in response to the novel Coronavirus, for these projects rather than coming to the county for future funding.

“Technology itself is a tool and it’s necessary for these things to happen, but we hope to get a roll on those aside from the middle school project,” said Dr. Cox.

Jones pleaded for the commissioners to commit to the funding as this new building is a must for the county and the students. Jones said that she believes the current middle school will soon be condemned by inspectors as it has begun to wear and tear over the many years it has been occupied.

In response to her plea, Jordan asked the Board of Education why aspects of the project are now shifting to require more funds.

“There has been a 10 to 15 percent increase in cost supplies in the past two years alone,” said Kesterson. “We wish we could control it, but unfortunately we can’t.”

After a long discussion and working out the planning, Olive made a motion to commit to the funding along with the Board of Education. Sands made a second to the motion and the board voted to commit and approve the $61.3 million project.

Mount Jefferson State Natural Area holds 15th annual Poetry Contest

For the past 15 years, Mt. Jefferson State Natural Area has been conducting poetry contests for grades K-3, 4-6 and sometimes the middle school.

The poets featured here are this year’s Ashe County K-3 category winners. The park had more than 150 poems summited this year from grades k-6. In previous years, the contest has seen more than 350 poems submitted by local students.

Each year students are asked to write a poem about Mt. Jefferson State Natural Area. This year the park’s ranger, maintenance and office staff judged the contest. Ranger Tom Randolph started the contest back in 2006 with the support of Friends of State Parks. Each year 10-15 local poets are awarded prizes such as tents, sleeping bags, back packs, flashlights and telescopes. Prizes were funded by the Friends of High Country State Parks.

Through the years the park has had help, as some NC Poet Laureates have helped judge the finalist poetry.

Many times, during the poetry contest park staff have the opportunity to meet families, grandparents and students who come to the mountain during the day or at sunset to be inspired by the natural beauty of Mt. Jefferson.

“We always remember that this mountain has been set aside and protected from development and exploitation because of forward-thinking people,” said Randolph. “People from this community wanted to know that this mountain would be safe for future generations. Today as we ponder our ever-changing world, it is a comfort to know that this mountain is safe, and it belongs to the children of today and their children’s children.”

Randolph continued, “These young poets know that this is their mountain, and it is inspiring to know that they care about all the plants and animals who call Mt. Jefferson home.”

June 6, 1944: A look back at Ashe County's D-Day

This photo of Blanco Eller appeared in a local newspaper while he was in training. Eller would be killed in France on June 10, 1944, following the landings on D-Day.

Editors Note: This article contains information from the June 8, 1944, edition of the Skyland Post.

The June 8, 1944, edition of West Jefferson’s Skyland Post brought news that D-Day — codenamed Operation Overlord — was currently taking place in France. The invasion, which had initially began on June 6, was a joint operation between American, Canadian and British troops to liberate Western Europe from the Nazi Germany’s control. It is known as one of the greatest amphibious landing operations in history and was a key point of World War II.

Locally, the Skyland Post reported to Ashe County residents that the Allies had pushed inland both 71/2 miles and 10 miles across a 60-mile battle front along the coastline of Normandy, France. The newspaper also reported that more than 1,000 troop carrier planes including gliders, more than 4,000 ships and thousands of smaller craft had taken part in the invasion, which it referred to as a “great crusade.”

One of the newspaper’s headlines read that “Both Roosevelt and Churchill Say New Invasion Going Well,” but continued by noting that the road to victory would be a tough one. President Roosevelt himself was quoted in the article as saying that “the war was not over by any means” and that “You don’t land on a beach in France and march to Berlin.” The president also warned citizens “against overconfidence which might lead to any let down in production.”

Another article which ran in the June 8, 1944 edition of the Skyland Post stated that both Germany’s former ally, Italy, as well as Russia “Welcomed the News of the Allied Invasion.”

Back home in Ashe County, the newspaper reported that “D-Day was quietly and prayerfully observed in Ashe County with little show of emotion.” Several churches were said to have held special prayer service and group prayers were held in some homes and communities.

It was said that Ashe County residents kept near their radios throughout the day due to the fear of missing information about the historic military operation. But that many residents carried out their daily routines “apparently feeling that D-Day was no day for idling.”

Many church service were held and prayers offered for the “success of the invasion and a early victory.”

The Skyland Post also stated that “Church Bells were rung here on early Tuesday morning to inform those who had not already heard the news.”

At least one Ashe County resident was said to have been killed during fighting around Normandy. Blanco “Coe” Eller had joined the U.S. Army in 1942 and was eventually assigned to the 90th Infantry Division, also known as the “Tough ‘Ombres.”

Elements of the 90th Infantry Division landed on Normandy’s famed Utah Beach on D-Day with the rest of the division joining them soon after. On June 10, 1944 — just four days after the start of the invasion — Eller was killed in action near the town of Chef DuPont, France. He is currently interred at the Calvin Eller Family Cemetery in Ashe County.

Sunday June, 6 marked the 77th anniversary of D-Day. According to the North Carolina State Library System more than 8,500 North Carolinians who served in World War II never returned. Currently listed on the Ashe County Veterans Memorial are the names of 88 Ashe County resident who were killed during World War II. The Ashe County Veterans Memorial can be found in front of the Ashe County Courthouse located at 150 Government Circle in Jefferson.

The Ashe County Public Library and Museum of Ashe County History assisted with this story.

Local law enforcement reports little alcohol related traffic citations over Memorial Day weekend

ASHE COUNTY — For many across the nation Memorial Day — a day set aside to remember America’s fallen service members — has become an unofficial kickoff to summer. But despite the celebratory aspects the three-day weekend holds for many, some local law enforcement agencies are happy to report that there were little to no alcohol-related traffic citations reported this year.

According to the Ashe County Sheriff’s Department, the agency reported no DUI citations during the Memorial Day weekend. Likewise, the Jefferson Police Department reported zero DUI cases during the holiday and the West Jefferson Police Department reported a single alcohol-related traffic stop during the weekend, a driving while consuming citation for an individual under 21 years of age.

This Memorial Day weekend’s low number of DUI cases are also consistent with years’ prior. The Ashe County Sheriff’s Department reported zero DUI cases for 2020’s Memorial Day weekend, one DUI case in 2019 and only one case in 2018. The West Jefferson Police Department also reported zero DUI’s for the 2020 and 2019 Memorial Day weekends.

Regardless of these low numbers, Ashe County residents may still have found themselves going through a license check this holiday weekend. However, according to Chief Deputy Danny Houck of the Ashe County Sheriff’s Department, these types of checks have less to do with DUI enforcement and more to do with deterring general crime in a given area.

“The reason we do the license checking stations is not just for DUI, it’s for all crimes,” Houck said. “Whenever you see a license check, usually its because we’re starting to see a rise in call volume or crime in that area. So, it’s data driven where those license checking stations are.”

During these types of stops it is not uncommon to see two or more law enforcement agencies working as a team.

“Most of the time we are in conjunction with another jurisdiction,” Houck said. “We may do a license check near West Jefferson or Jefferson where we get those local police departments to come help with the flow of traffic. If we’re out in county, most of the time we’re with and assisting the highway patrol.”

Houck noted that these types of check points serve a duel purpose. Not only do they put a police presence in a communities with a high call volume, but they also serve as a means of pulling criminal offenders off the roadways.

“The community sees that we’re out and about trying to deter crime,” said Houck. “We also get a lot of people who are wanted for outstanding warrants out of these checking stations, and we also get a lot of narcotics out of these checking stations.”

As far as DUI enforcement in the county goes, Houck stated that the Ashe County Sheriff’s Department has plans to for more DUI enforcement training later in the year and that they will be working with the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to learn about conducting standard field sobriety test and administering intoximeter test.