God Bless America
On Dec. 9, the city commission chamber was empty as the Planning and Zoning Commission listened to a sign ordinance review. It stood in stark contrast to the eruption two months earlier when residents arrived in force at the Oct. 7 city commission meeting. It was standing-room only as residents objected to what may have been a misunderstanding.
A week earlier, residents had been told signs bearing the message, “God Bless America” had to come down. The signs, which had been distributed as holiday signs given out by First Baptist Church prior to the July 4 celebration, had remained on people’s lawns and in windows in excess of the allowable time frame.
However, at least one resident believed it was the message to which the city objected, thus contacted a Tampa TV station. As a result, the news went national. During the city commission meeting, City Manager George A. Long and commissioners assured the public the action had nothing to do with the message. Long said the city would begin a study to revise the current ordinance, as well as suspend enforcement of the ordinance for the time being.
In the proposal in December, four problem areas were identified with the sign ordinance.
What ultimately came from the Planning and Zoning Committee meeting was the department would come up with a short-term action plan while it drafted a new sign ordinance.
600 days of construction ends
By mid-October, construction that had clogged and closed Van Fleet Drive and U.S. 98 was completed. For the first time in months drivers were able to enjoy added lanes and were no longer concerned with being late to get the county courthouse.
“I just avoided that intersection,” south Lakeland resident Jim Herkel said. “I found ways around it. It is awesome now that it’s done.”
Michelle Baker of Fort Meade thought the construction process “was a nightmare” because the “lanes changed every time I drove through there. And, I thought it was OK before they started work on it. I think they are just trying to make Bartow big.”
The project cost $9.7 million and took approximately two years. The project started in October 2011 and finished within the allotted 600 days.
A boom that went viral
Last spring, news from Bartow went worldwide when friends talked a fellow high school student into demonstrating her science experiment. It caused an explosion in an area near a pond on the high school campus. The explosion and ensuing smoke prompted the principal to rush to the scene. It subsequently led to the student, a sophomore, being arrested. Shortly after, she was expelled. She then had to attend an alternative school to complete the school year.
The student, Kiera Wilmot, was charged with making or possessing and discharging a destructive device and discharging a weapon on school grounds, both felonies.
She told authorities she was conducting a science experiment, according to Bartow police, but at the time science teachers at the school said they knew nothing about it. She said she thought there’d only be smoke and not an explosion.
An online petition was started and the Polk County School District was attacked for the position it took with the student. The petition, started by Maggie Gilman of Corbett, Ore., used a story at change.org showing that Kiera was an “exemplary student and a wonderful young woman,” and questioned why a science experiment gone wrong was being dealt with that way.
To help fight for her cause, the family hired Winter Haven attorney Larry Hardaway, who eventually got the charges dropped against Kiera.
Kiera is being raised by her mother and has a twin sister named Kayla, vowed to take things one day at a time as Kiera was thrown by the attention that came her way from this episode.
Her mother, Marie, said Kiera had sleepless nights. She’s trying to cope and while she knows this incident will stay with her she hopes it will go in the back of her mind.
Hardaway pointed out that she will always have the picture in her mind of being arrested, sitting in the back of patrol car handcuffed.
However, there was a bright side to the incident. In addition to being allowed to return to Bartow High School, both sisters received scholarship to attend space camp in Huntsville, Ala., courtesy of Homer Hickam, an American author, Vietnam veteran, and a former NASA engineer. When he was a high school student in the late 1950s, Hickham had also been arrested for a model rocket ship project that had gone wrong. It was later proved the errant missile was not one he and his friends had built, but one built for and launched by the military. Hickham and his classmates were the subject of a book, “Rocket Boys,” upon which the movie, “October Sky” was based.
BMS slowly improving on F grade
At the end of the 2011-2012 school year, Bartow Middle School was termed failing school by the state. Its principal, Danny Adams was fired. He was replaced by Angela Gordon, who as principal at Oscar J. Pope, had raised that school from a D to a B in one year. Joining her was Bryant Joyner as assistant principal, who the year before had been at Union Academy.
Despite efforts to turn it around, for 2012-2013, the best it could do was raise its grade to a D (based upon statistics released this December. Five weeks before the end of the school year, Gordon took a leave of absence to care for an ailing family member. She was replaced by Pam Henderson, who began the 2013-2014 without any assistant principals. She has since been joined by Katie Jane Shytle and Byron Williams
While BMS continued to struggle, Alturas Elementary rose from a D to a B-plus. To reverse course at BMS, Henderson said some of the recovery methods used by Alturas will be put in place. The school now has on-staff coaches to help teachers with reading and math. Those helped Alturas raise their grade, as did additional study time set aside to concentrate on reading skills. Even though it is early in the reporting year for middle schools, both Henderson and District Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jackie Byrd said BMS is “on the upswing.”
CRA changes focus
Bartow’s Community Redevelopment Agency decide in May it would change its future direction. It is going to pick a couple of major projects to put money into to produce better results and to improve the city and clean up blight and foster economic growth.
Interim Executive Director Andy Laurent said there is a lot the CRA can accomplish to improve Bartow and the city does not have to try to compete with Orlando or other big cities to be attractive for consumers and businesses.
In order not to leave CRA’s partners financially high and dry, a challenge grant was proposed. With a challenge grant, a client would raise their own money and the CRA would match the funding dollar for dollar. Co-executive directorBrian Hinton said this would encourage the CRA to concentrate on more ideal places to spend money.
Another major change that happened is the three-year incubator program ceased when the lease with the owner of the Stuart Building ended July 31 and was not renewed. Under the auspices of Main Street Bartow Inc., it was estimated the incubator program provided approximately $700,000 in economic development. The program provided assistance to new business owners.
Brown going to Smithsonian
“It is my privilege as Governor, to congratulate the residents of Bartow on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s choice to include a foundation stone of the Historic L.B. Brown House in its inaugural display,” stated a letter from Gov. Rick Scott that was sent to the city. Scott also wrote in that letter, “I also want to commend Clifton Lewis and the Neighborhood Improvement Corporation of Bartow for their continued commitment to preserving Florida’s history. Your efforts, along with the Sunshine State’s economic turnaround, are making Florida the best place in the nation to grow a business.”
The letter came after Deborah Mack, director for Community and Constituent Services of Smithsonian Institution, came to Bartow on Dec. 9 to accept a foundation stone from the Brown House to take back to Washington, D.C. The Brown House will be one of 13 exhibits featured when the museum opens next winter. While its selection took more than a year after her visit to consider it, she said it’s selection is almost an automatic choice, she said.
“He came out of difficult circumstances and he not only helped his family but a community as well,” she said at the party that was planned when she came to Bartow.
With the Brown House to be a permanent exhibit at the new museum his legacy has grown. In the weeks before the Dec. 9 event, Lewis said, “This is a state event, not just a Bartow event. People are starting to call him one of Florida’s native sons.”
Bus driver goes to prison for staging fight
What happened on the bus didn’t stay on the bus. Patrice Sanders, 30, was sentenced to nearly 21 months in prison in August for driving 34 students from Bartow to her house in Lakeland, where she let two feuding girls fight in her front yard while other students watched. However, at least one student videotaped the fight on a cellphone.
Sanders, of 1133 Enterprise St., Lakeland, was arrested after the May 9 incident and charged with one count of false imprisonment, two counts of child abuse, two counts of child neglect and two counts contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said in a press conference, an argument began because a 16-year-old believed a 13-year-old was saying bad things about her in Spanish to another friend. The students on the bus were from Bartow High, Summerlin Academy and Gause Academy.
Sanders drove the bus to her house 23 miles from the Bartow High School. After arriving at her home, Sanders told the children to get off the bus. She gave the girls Vaseline or baby oil to put on their faces so their faces wouldn’t get scratched.
Once back on the road, the two girls began fighting again. Sanders pulled the bus over and watched them fight until they were done.
Rockin’ outdoors with LRB
People were still talking several days later following the Sunday, Nov. 10 Veterans Day Tribute concert featuring the Little River Band that was held at the band shell at Mosaic Park.
“People are asking can we do it again,” said Trish Pfeiffer, one of the concert organizers. “They’re saying, let’s do it again. We need to do it again.”
Pfeiffer said the comments were not limited to only concerts being performed at the band shell, but that there should also be other events and performances staged there.
She added that Debra Sutton, who put the wheels in motion getting the Little River Band, said the turnout was better than expected. In addition, Sutton said Wayne Nelson, the band’s bass player and lead vocalist, told her he was impressed with Bartow’s hospitality.
Impressions of the band and concert were equally positive.
“They did a great job. I think it was incredible, absolutely incredible,” said Sharon Casey. “That’s the music I grew up to.”
Proceeds from the show went to help The Wounded Warriors Project, Women’s Care Center, and the Hearth Project.
Culture, Cuisine and Conversation
In an effort to improve race relations, the Community Relations Committee, the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Chamber of Commerce held an event that featured speakers designed to foster frank talk, with cultural foods catered, in order to accomplish that, titled the Culture, Cuisine and Conversation. It was held Oct. 22 at the Bartow Public Library was led by Kenneth Stephens and had a panel of Ken Riley, Velmarie Albertini and Richard Harris. Approximately 75 people attended. It came about at a Community Relations Committee meeting in which it was felt that while the yearly Diversity Luncheon may have accomplished something, it wasn’t going far enough.
At this year’s diversity luncheon, Harris, a professor at the Southeastern University and a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who later became a preacher, was the guest speaker. His message was that while race relations had come a long way, there still was a distance to go. It was if you want to improve race relations make it happen. While people read and hear about drops in hate crimes, they also need to read between the lines.
“They say there are fewer groups and that sounds positive,” he said. “Well, no. The extremist movement is not dying out. What is happening is they’re getting smarter and putting their pride to the side. The number (of groups) is getting smaller because they’re combining.”
BMS teacher loses job
A former Bartow Middle School medical services teacher charged with inappropriately touching female students was officially fired in August and is no longer allowed to teach in the Polk County Public Schools system. At its board meeting Aug. 27, the Polk County School Board voted to officially uphold the termination of Jerry Coe.
Coe, 46, a trained emergency services technician placed on administrative leave last fall, learned that the administrative judge who heard his side of the story in May ruled that Coe’s behavior was “inappropriate” and that attorney Don Wilson, representing Polk County Public Schools, had outlined behavior not suited for a teacher. Students also testified at that administrative hearing.
Coe had requested the hearing to protest school board’s firing of him.
Coe was accused of “engaging in inappropriate physical ‘horseplay’” with young female students in his class. Coe claimed that physical contact was appropriate while teaching his health science classes to illustrate proper techniques for taking blood pressure, listening to heart sounds and checking an emergency patient for wounds.
Union Academy becomes an IB school
After successfully completing a three year International Baccalaureate accreditation process, Union Academy in Bartow became an International Baccalaureate World School in August.
Union Academy has received approval from the IB accreditation team to offer the three-year IB Middle Year Programme.
The IB program is designed to offer a rigorous level of education with an emphasis on global awareness and community service. Carolyn Bridges, senior director of Magnet, Choice and Charter Schools said the Middle Year IB Programme prepares students to succeed in the high school IB program, which can give students the opportunity to receive college credit for taking certain advanced level classes.
Union Academy is open to students who live in the high school zones for Bartow, Mulberry, Lake Wales, Fort Meade and Frostproof.
Besides Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland, Union Academy is the only other middle school in Polk County to offer the Middle Years Programme.
Milestone pact reached between city, county
The city will earn some new yearly income now that wastewater negotiations with the county were finalized and unanimously approved by city commissioners in October. In addition, the process of reaching the agreement has allowed the city to enter into what may have set the standard for future agreements with the BOCC in what will possibly prove to be a better relationship with the county government.
Polk County and the city have entered into a 25-year agreement over sharing wastewater plant services, a plan that was seven years in the making and perceived as a benefit to the taxpayers of both entities.
“Although it is a benefit to the county and city residents which are different for each, the fact is what guided us is fair and reasonable to all,” said Bartow City Manager George A. Long. “They’re all citizens and when it comes to government agreements everything should go to all citizens.”
“This is really a benefit to us all. It’s a milestone for both of us,” Gary Fries, Polk’s Utilities Division Director, said.
Originally discussed in 2006, the pact was redone a few years ago and being fair to both sides was foremost in the minds of both Long and County Manager Jim Freeman.
“(Long) and I agreed the goal was an equity issue between the city and county rate payers,” Freeman said at the county commission meeting Sept. 30.