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Jail, school woes top county news in 2019

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NASHVILLE — Troubles at the Nash County Detention Center and Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools dominated coverage of Nash County in 2019.

After a year of jailbreaks, inmate violence, fires and squabbling among county officials, state authorities stepped in a called for the immediate reduction of the inmate population and numerous improvements at the aging detention center.

Sheriff Keith Stone and Board of Commissioners Chairman Robbie Davis, friends and fellow Republicans, came to an impasse over construction or major expansion of the jail.

Stone wants a modern facility. Davis has said that while improvements are needed, the county isn’t going to build a new multimillion-dollar jailhouse.

After dismal state inspections in May and December, the state made demands of a reduction of around 200 inmates to no more than 56 and several other changes, according to a letter to Stone and Davis from Steven Lewis, chief of the N.C. Division of Health Service Regulation’s Construction Section, which falls under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ umbrella.

The report cited structural and operational issues. The long list of required upgrades includes dedicated fire watches until the smoke evacuation system is overhauled, a minimum of six guards each shift and better searches of inmates, visitors, staff and contractors for contraband.

Stone said he inherited the issues at the jail when elected sheriff in 2014.

The county also now requires the sheriff’s office to seek purchase approval from the county manager or finance director.

Teachers met a March proposal by the schools finance committee to cut teacher pay for the remainder of the fiscal year with sadness, fear and a promise to rally.

A veteran educator told The Enterprise the possibility of a pay cut showed a lack of value for the people who teach the county’s children.

The finance committee wanted to cut 35% of supplement pay from teachers, administrators and other certified staff to make up for a yearlong shortfall, which would have saved $795,000 in the school system’s budget.

The Nash County Board of Commissioners bailed out the school system, preventing the salary cuts.

In July, Superintendent Shelton Jefferies resigned his position.

Jefferies had a rocky year, including a large budget shortfall and allegations of misuse of a county vehicle for personal purposes.

Teacher salaries were the focus of headlines again in December when a mistake caused insurance premiums as high as $240 to be deducted from teacher paychecks. The deductions occurred without prior teacher knowledge and right before Christmas. The school system said it was working to fix the problem and teachers should receive a reimbursement.

In a case that captured national headlines, a southern Nash County man was indicted in the March slaying of his wife.

Lynn Keel, 57, faces a first-degree murder charge in the death of 38-year-old Diana Keel.

Keel, who lived with his wife on Old County Home Road near Momeyer, initially reported his wife missing in early March but fled the area as investigators began to focus on him.

Authorities captured Keel in Tucson, Arizona, five days after he went on the lam.

In other southern Nash County news, state Rep. Lisa Barnes is running for the state Senate seat belonging to Sen. Rick Horner, who isn’t running for reelection.

Barnes, a Spring Hope native who represents Franklin County and a sliver of southern Nash County in House District 7, said she’s running for Senate District 11 in order to be able to represent more of Nash County. District 11 includes all of Nash and part of Johnston County.

Nash County commissioners approved a budget in June for 2019-20 that keeps the property tax rate the same for the 10th year in a row.