A survey is only as good as the controls it sets

Lunches have been packed, sleep routines reset, and spelling words called out since students returned to classrooms across Georgia. Now parents, teachers, and students are reviewing progress reports and sizing up what happens during the next half of the grading period.

This point in the school year also gives school leaders an opportunity to review what is working and what might need to be adjusted. During a pandemic, the ability for schools to pivot on a pinhead may be the difference between lives saved and lost.

On the afternoon of Thursday, September 9, 2021, Washington County Public Schools sent out a survey using a Google platform tool asking for feedback from the school community. The survey tool is one I have used as both an executive director and board president of nonprofits.

The school system’s email with the link to the survey was sent to me by parents in the community. The form didn’t ask for any identifying information: no name, email, address, phone number. It did ask if the person responding is a school employee. It could be filled out by anyone anywhere  who had the link. I filled it out and submitted it. Twice.

Friday morning when I returned to the link it said I had already submitted my answer. Fair enough. After poking around with it some during the second of many cups of coffee, I got this:

Washington County Public Schools survey
September 10, 2021

The survey showed my email address, but Google’s software told me it wasn’t collecting anything from my account.

This isn’t the first time the schools have sent out a survey without parameters set on who could fill out the survey, or requiring any identifying information, in order to submit the survey. Last school year I picked up the phone and ended up talking with Dr. Rickey Edmond, who assured me that they were able to collect identifying data even though none was require to submit answers. I told him having seen the backside of these surveys via my Google business account, I’d sure like to know how they were managing that, because it might help me in the future. All I got was, “We can.”

With the broad questions asked in last week’s survey, what can Dr. Edmond  the Board of Education, and school principals really take away beyond how smooth car pick up and drop off are, and general satisfaction with instruction? Is a blind survey the only way for school leaders to know how parents and employees gauge the school year to date? How confident can school leaders, parents, teachers, and students be that the survey sent out on Thursday has the controls and parameters to collect accurate information?

It will be interesting to see what Dr. Edmond and the Board of Education members share with the community. Based on recent inquiries by myself and others concerned about the system’s Covid-19 record-keeping and reporting, my confidence in the quality of information collected and shared by the school system is low. Will the results of a survey available to anyone with email be used to guide judgement impacting not only the education of every student, but the health of the entire Washington County community?

A suggestion for Atlantans frustrated about access to vaccinations

Governor Brian Kemp’s administration has excelled at how to not handle this year-long pandemic. The roll-out of vaccinations has not been an exception to their poor performance in the past year.

That a vaccine is available is a surprise to no one, but the state’s preparation for access to shots has put us last in the country for success. Citizens are frustrated, and rightly so.

Kemp chose to base scheduling on a website and understaffed phone lines. People without internet or computer access have been limited to spending hours on the phone trying fruitlessly to get an appointment. Kemp  announced expanded eligibility for vaccines but the state’s website wasn’t updated to reflect that, which resulted in phone bank staffers turning away people trying to begin their vaccinations. What a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars and time.

Access to vaccine locations has been equally frustrating. The majority of vaccines have only been available in urban areas, leaving rural residents without reasonable access. Five state sites outside the perimeter of Atlanta, capable of serving thousands of people a day, will open today. Scheduling problems migrated to those sites as well.

Now that Kemp has opened up eligibility to more people, people in Atlanta are complaining that they can’t get vaccinated near their homes. Kemp is urging those people to drive to south Georgia for shots.

There are all kinds of reasons this isn’t helpful, particularly for rural Georgia.

With libraries closed, which often serve as the only point of access to the internet and computers for many small community residents, vaccine appointments remain a hurdle they cannot scale. Kemp should have ramped up phone capacity for appointments along with the addition of these new locations.

Most rural Georgia communities lack public transportation. Counties aren’t equipped to get people who lack transportation to vaccination sites. Shots in arms is critical to reducing case load, saving lives, and energizing our state economy, especially as the weather warms up and people think about vacations.

With newly expanded eligibility for vaccination, metro Atlanta residents are complaining about not being able to get their shot a few miles from home. Kemp ‘s best solution is to drive out of town for vaccines. Rightly so, people who don’t get paid time off from the one, two, or maybe three jobs they need to house, feed, and clothe their families, have every reason to be angry. But they aren’t the only ones complaining.

Covid-19 vaccination site, Sandersville, GA

This is my suggestion to people who do have reliable transportation, and can afford to, but don’t want to, take sick or vacation time and miss two days of work to get their shots-quit bitching. Your privilege is offensive to every rural resident who has gone without medical care because they didn’t have the technology available in their home for telehealth, the means to drive a considerable distance to see a specialist, get prenatal care, or visit someone they love who was out of town for care.

Rural Georgians have done without the medical care urban residents have since urban areas developed across our state. Small town Georgians have watched our hospitals close, medical services shrink, and doctors choose urban over rural for decades.

That rural communities have managed to feed themselves for a year  without the ease of Instacart or Door Dash is a testament to their abilities. There hasn’t been same day, or even next day, Amazon delivery for school and household supplies. Streaming anything on the web for entertainment, education, or work hasn’t been an option for too many families.

After all that we have managed to survive, having to drive out of town for a vaccine that will protect you, your family, neighbors, and coworkers, should be the last thing you complain about right now. Make an appointment, put gas in the car, choose some podcasts or audio books to listen to, and drive yourself to a place where people just as eager, but less privileged, have waited just as long as you have to get a vaccine.

Last proposed coal plant on file in the United States is cancelled

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

FROM: FALL-LINE ALLIANCE FOR A CLEAN ENVIRONMENT

DATE: APRIL 14, 2020

CONTACT: KATHERINE CUMMINGS
katherine@katherinecummings.net
478.232.8010

LAST PROPOSED COAL PLANT ON FILE IN THE UNITED STATES IS CANCELLED

The Fall-Line Alliance for a Clean Environment (FACE) is proud to announce a permit extension for Plant Washington, a coal-fired power plant proposed to be built in rural Washington County Georgia, has been denied by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (Georgia EPD). The extension denial invalidates the construction permit and all amendments to the permit are revoked in their entirety. On April 6, 2020, Plant Washington was the only remaining proposed coal plant in the United States to be cancelled.

Announced in mid-January 2008, Plant Washington was heralded by local leaders and plant developer Dean Alford as a fossil-fueled benefit to the local economy. Alford, who is currently indicted for multiple felonies, said that he expected some opposition from environmental groups in Atlanta, which he believed would be tamped down easily. Alford, along with some local leaders, elected officials, and several Electric Membership Cooperatives (EMCs) across the state did not anticipate any opposition from local citizens.

Their assumptions were wrong. A small group of Washington County citizens quickly organized to establish FACE, and quickly began working with state, regional, and national organizations to hold community meetings, table at festivals, speak at state and federal hearings, and testify in court proceedings. FACE worked closely with the Southern Environmental Law Center, Georgia Sierra Club, Altamaha Riverkeeper, Ogeechee Riverkeeper, Justine Thompson Cowan, former director of GreenLaw, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Together with its partners, FACE worked diligently for more than 12 years to protect the natural resources, community health, and budgets of Washington County families from the financial boondoggle Plant Washington posed. While the coal plant developer searched futilely for customers, other partner EMCs withdrew their funding and support. In the same time period Azalea Solar Project was constructed and began operating just a few miles from the proposed coal plant site. Cobb EMC, the electric co-op which once fully backed Plant Washington with $13M dollars of its owner’s money, purchases all of the solar project’s electricity.

Despite studies and analysis provided by financial and energy experts refuting the need for the plant, Washington County residents sold or signed away their homes and land rights. Earlier this year a Washington County bank placed legal ads concerning loan defaults for land where the coal plant was supposed to be built. Last year’s property taxes on the land are still unpaid.

The Georgia EPD’s cancellation of the permits is the final death-blow to this no-bid, antiquated project. On behalf of the FACE Board of Directors, Katherine Cummings said, “FACE is deeply appreciative of the critical work our partners contributed towards defeating the country’s last proposed coal plant on the books. The ability to produce clean renewable energy right here in Washington County is further proof that dirty, outdated power generation does not make fiscal or environmental sense. Together with our allies, FACE remains committed to protecting the natural resources and health of our community.”

A test of faith

Last Friday Governor Brian Kemp took the unprecedented step of declaring a statewide public health emergency as the number of Covid-19 (coronavirus) cases began to increase on national and state levels. The Georgia General Assembly suspended its calendar last Thursday and returned for on Monday for a special session called by the Governor to approve his actions.  Yesterday the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) confirmed  197 cases of Covid-19 and three deaths.  The number of reported cases are updated daily at noon.

Whether the changes we are adopting come from business, civic, or elected leaders, the chorus in this choir is to avoid being closer than six feet from other people. I prefer the phrase physical distancing instead of social distancing. We need our social connections now more than ever, just not the close physical ones.

Last weekend I was supposed to be with about 12 other Life Is A Verb Campers for a house party filled with making art, cooking Pi Day themed meals, walking, yoga, and sharing stories. Instead of being together physically, we gathered at 11:00 in the morning via Zoom for coffee and everyone’s choice of pie. I made a roasted mushroom and asparagus quiche. It wasn’t the same as being in a room together, but it was good to see much-loved faces and talk.

Having done that on Saturday, the next morning I did a quick FaceBook search of five large churches in rural Washington County to see how they were adapting to the six foot wingspan way of living now. All five opened their doors to congregation members. One of the five churches was St James Christian Fellowship. This congregation is led by Georgia State House Representative Mack Jackson. He did not reply to my email with questions about opening the church last week.

Last Thursday Jackson worked with other state representatives to suspend their work and return home out of an abundance of caution due to Covid-19. On Friday some members stood closer than six feet to Kemp while he announce the public health emergency. Despite the cautions taken by the state, Jackson and other faith leaders invited people to gather together, perhaps more than once, last Sunday.

Everyone in those churches knows that the local hospital, like those in other rural counties, is not equipped to handle a large number of Covid-19 patients. The capacity just isn’t there, no matter how caring and well=trained the health providers are. With all of the free and easy-to-use technology available for streaming a service, why any church leaders thought that unlocking the doors last Sunday was a good idea, is enough to test one’s faith.

 

How to be both angry and sad at the same time

For the past 17 months and six days, people have said that I am handling suddenly being widowed with grace. Being furious and raging wasn’t going to unwind the fact that a careless driver killed my husband while he was riding his bike. I have limited reserves of energy, and I knew that walking around being angry wasn’t going to get me very far.

Last Thursday I was both angry and sad. If David Cummings was alive, I would have put down whatever work project had my attention in Atlanta just before 2:00, gotten in my car, and driven back to Sandersville, Georgia to celebrate with him. As I have told friends before, it was David who helped me connect the dots not too long after the boondoggle Plant Washington was announced.

I didn’t know much about energy production before the end of January 2008 when Dean Alford was presented to the business leaders of Washington County in an invitation only presentation at the Washington EMC. As I learned more, I became very concerned. It’s handy to be married to a geologist who can explain the water tables and such when a coal plant is going to draw down 16Million gallons of water per day, and your household water source about eight miles from the plant site is also drawn from a well in that same geologic plain.

FACE Board members and earliest supporters with certificates of recognition from President Obama

I’ve always credited David for helping me find my way on responding to Plant Washington. On one of the first beautiful spring days in 2008, the kind that makes you want to find any reason to go outside, I told David I wished there was someone who lived near the proposed plant site that I could talk to, because surely they would be concerned about the threats of coal ash emissions, access to water, safety, and property values. He casually said that long-time family friends Randy and Cathy Mayberry had a cabin adjacent to the site, that maybe I should talk to them.

That sunny afternoon I went out to walk, and after about an hour, sweaty and kind of worn looking, I knocked on the Mayberry’s front door. Cathy answered, and while I told her I didn’t want to interrupt their day, and I surely wasn’t fit to sit down with anyone to talk, maybe sometime we could have a conversation about the risks posed by Plant Washington. From the living room Randy called out, “Come on in.”

From there Cathy and I met on someone’s porch with Lyle Lansdell, Pat, and Sonny Daniel, Paula and John Swint. Jennette Gayer came drove down from Atlanta. Seth Gunning, a student at Valdosta State who was light years ahead of the rest of us about energy and the environment, drove up for a meeting. Larry Warthen, whose church was founded after the Civil War, where unmarked graves of enslaved and free people are just yards from the plant site perimeter, stepped up to help lead in the work. The lawyers and partner organizations came to us to teach us, guide us, and become champions for our community too.

David was a certified stream monitor for the Ogeechee Rverkeeper. Our grandchildren Chase and Ella went with him one afternoon to learn about stream monitoring.

David didn’t go to those early meetings, but he listened to me, counseled me when I thought my head would explode as I learned more about the convoluted way coal plants are developed, permitted, and financed. He signed the petitions and went to the hearings. He phone banked when volunteers across the state came together to help return Cobb EMC to the rightful control of the member-owners. He used a few vacation days to attend court proceedings and EPA public comment sessions. Later he agreed to serve on the board of the small grassroots organization, the Fall-Line Alliance for a Clean Environment (FACE), that came together after the first few community meetings. Because he grew up fishing, canoeing, and swimming at our family’s farm on the Ogeechee River, he became a certified stream monitor.

Summer vacation in Maine, 2010, as I was beginning to realize fighting Plant Washington was the work I needed to do full-time

In the summer of 2010, when I knew to my core that quitting a job as a rural health advocate, where I excelled, instead of working nights, weekends, and burning through vacation days to fight Plant Washington, was my true calling, David supported me. When I worked 12 hours a day, he walked the dogs and cooked dinner. When I had cancer and was exhausted from radiation treatments, and the work required to fight Plant Washington totaled at least one thousand hours each week among our partners, he supported me. When Plant Washington’s funders backed out, and the truth in what FACE and our partners had said all along became clearer and clearer, David celebrated with me. And when the work of fighting Plant Washington wasn’t a full-time job any longer, because winning meant I would work my way out of a job, David supported me while I looked for work that would tap all the passion and experience I had garnered since 2008. He was always there.

Thursday evening I had plans to meet Atlanta friends who don’t know me as coal-plant fighting activist. One of them said she wanted to hear the story of my work as we began walking through the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. I told her I couldn’t compress it well at the moment, as it began in 2008 and changed me forever.

So we toasted a long-awaited victory, one they know matters to the health of the small rural community where my husband and children grew up, where some of my grandchildren live now, the community that helped FACE leaders become the best and truest versions of ourselves.  We toasted to doing work that matters and benefits everyone on this one planet, and to those whose bodies have been returned to it.

 

When will we learn?

The Friday Photo
August 26, 2016

Photo collage credit, Sarah Todd, Newton County, Georgia, August 25, 2016
Photo collage credit, Sarah Todd, Newton County, Georgia, August 25, 2016

Rep Sharon Cooper attempts a 180

I hope Rep Sharon Cooper didn’t hurt herself while attempting that 180 on her statement last week about rural hospitals when she said, “There are some of those rural hospitals that need to close.”

Yesterday Cooper attempted to dial back her comments by telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution that closing rural hospitals “would have serious consequences on the affected community, hurting it economically and limiting access to acute care for Georgians.”

Cooper went on to say, as reported by Jim Galloway today,“If we don’t act to make real, substantive changes, we very well could be faced with the hard reality of hospital closures in rural parts of this state, no matter how many short gap measures we take, leaving many communities without the economic engine and access to care people depend on.”

Nurse Cooper and many of the urban based legislators under the Gold Dome suffer from a chronic disease that rural residents can identify in just seconds. I don’t know what the Latin derivation is, but it translates to, “I’m from Atlanta and I know what is best for ‘you people’ who don’t use GA 400 every day.”

Cooper and others in her camp have refused Medicaid Expansion dollars, and in doing so have made it harder for rural hospitals to cover their costs, let alone recruit providers or make even modest capital improvements to aging facilities. No one is advocating for perpetual “short gap” measures as solutions for rural hospitals.

The problems of improving the health status of rural communities are complex. What won’t begin to solve them is a lot of pontificating by metro legislators who think their zip code makes them experts on all things rural.

It’s about fresh tomatoes and spitting watermelon seeds

coal-plants-wasteThe EPA held two public listening sessions in Atlanta yesterday concerning carbon pollution (greenhouse gas) and regulations which will be announced for existing coal power plants next year. At the last minute I wasn’t able to go to Atlanta to share mine in person. My three minutes of comments are below, which I will submit to the EPA by email.

I want to thank you for holding a public listening session in Atlanta, just miles from the country’s largest carbon emitting power plant, Plant Scherer. I live in rural Washington County, in Middle Georgia, about 2.5 hours southeast of Atlanta. My family and community are downwind about 60 miles from Scherer, and 30 miles from another coal plant, Plant Branch. After almost six years since it was announced, my community remains opposed to Plant Washington, an 850 MW coal plant that would be about eight miles from my front door in the eastern part of my county.

As a rural resident who relies on a well as our only source of water, we already know and live with the impact of uncontrolled carbon pollution in our country. Years of drought affect our ability to do basic things like run two loads of laundry in one day, even with a high-efficiency washing machine. Last summer, in 2012, my husband, who loves planting and taking care of his small garden, had to let his garden go. We had no captured rainwater to use and had to decide between having household water and fresh vegetables picked just minutes before dinner.

This past summer we had the other extreme. Our gardens drowned and our creeks and rivers overflowed.

At the end of the summer a year ago, I sadly realized I had not had nearly enough fresh locally grown tomatoes. There just weren’t any to be had. This past summer drug on with the rain gauge overflowing and the tomatoes suffering from root rot or bursting on the vines from too much water.

There is a very real connection between Plant Scherer, Plant Branch, the proposed Plant Washington, and carbon pollution. Kids missed out on spitting watermelon seeds in the backyard. And it is a crime for parents to not be able to say, “Eat those tomatoes and quit picking at your green beans. I grew them and you have to eat them.”

The damage done by unregulated carbon pollution in our country is here and we can see it at our dinner tables every night.

I urge the EPA to adopt strict carbon emission limits for existing power plants, and to require even stricter limits for Plant Washington, Plant Holcomb, and Plant Wolverine.