Helena vows to improve TAG grant process, residents voice concern at council meeting

By MACKENZEE SIMMS | Staff Writer

HELENA – Two weeks after controversy arose surrounding the Teacher Assistance Grant program, the Helena City Council reconvened on Monday, April 23 and addressed comments from the community at a regularly scheduled council meeting, ultimately deciding to reassess the current TAG grant guidelines.

On Monday, April 8, the Helena City Council awarded its biannual TAG team grants to 32 teachers across schools in Helena. Two of these teachers worked for the Hillsboro School, a private school in Helena. The decision to include this private school sparked outrage in the community, resulting in the Hillsboro School returning the money.

City Clerk Amanda Traywick confirmed that the Hillsboro School refunded $18,220.94 in the form of a check on Tuesday, April 9.

This amount consists of both the awarded money from the November 2023 and April 2024 TAG grants.

According to the city invoices in November, The Hillsboro School received TAG grants to the total value of $11,144.27 for six teachers. On Tuesday, April 9, the city of Helena announced that they awarded the Hillsboro School $425.32 this April for the use of two teachers.

This means that the Hillsboro School returned $6,651.35 more than the city of Helena initially claimed they awarded to the school.

After the discrepancy was pointed out, the city of Helena released an update on Tuesday, April 23, updating the total from the original $425.32 to the new total of $7,076.67.

After the initial controversy, the city of Helena launched an investigation into the May 2024 TAG grants. This investigation followed the original guidelines established for the TAG grants to see if the Helena City Council committed any legal wrongdoing.

According to the attorney for the city of Helena, Brian Hayes, his investigation took more than a week as he researched the issue and gathered outside opinions. The results of this investigation created an 81 page document.

Hayes shared his professional opinion that the city of Helena committed no legal wrongdoing.

“In my contract with the city, my job is to represent the city, not any one person on the city council or administration,” Hayes said. “As far as the city is concerned, the way the ordinance is written and the way the guidelines are written, everything was followed.”

According to Mayor Brian Puckett, the money for the TAG grants comes from Ordinance 806-11, which created the One Cent tax in 2011.

“Under section three of the ordinance, the city council can direct funds to public schools or any others expenses directly or appropriated by the city council,” Puckett said.

City Council President Alice Lobell shared that the guidelines of the TAG grants do not differentiate between public and private schools.

“The purpose is to fill the gaps in educational instructions needed by local schools and teachers, not funded by the Shelby County Board of Education,” Lobell said. “The next sentence (of the guidelines) says that this program has been established for the Helena area schools. Helena itself doesn’t own a school. These are Helena area schools, defined as schools that are both within our city limits and in an area zoned for Helena.”

Moving forward, it is the full intention of the Helena City Council to address the ordinance and guidelines. According to Councilmember Laura Joseph, this revision process will feature areas of improvement identified by the legal investigation.

“Since we’ve received the legal analysis, we saw some areas where we could improve, where we can tighten things up or we could clarify things a little bit more,” Joseph said. “That is one of the things that we—together, as a body— are looking to implement as we revise the ordinance and program guidelines as we move forward from this to make sure that we are doing what we need to do to.”

Members of the audience at the meeting still voiced discontentment with the way the city handled the controversy.

One citizen, Alan Beck, claimed that he wished the city had made a more complete statement on social media, informing the community and addressing concerns.

“It’s very important to have these meetings and have this open dialogue, certainly at a work session and public comments, but communicating with your citizens is different today,” Beck said. “It can be done through social media. That’s where you can dispel some rumors or myth.”

Lobell shared that she was reluctant to share any information on social media while this investigation was ongoing.

“That’s the reason none of us spoke on everything. We were waiting to make sure we were speaking correctly,” Lobell said. “I’m going to speak for everybody as president of the council, everybody at this table acted in good faith. We were doing what was the right thing for the students. That’s the reason we established the TAG grants, trying to be able to help them get things that the school board was not providing. It was meant to be a very good thing.”

One member of the audience, Matt Herndon, spoke up about how the complaints from the community consisted of more than whether or not the city followed the guidelines.

“I think you all are too focused on the legality of it where the citizens are more focused on the practicality and the ethics of it,” Herndon said. “I understand that you all in the council want to focus on the legality of it, but that’s not what your constituents are upset with.”

Herndon spoke of the ethicality of the money being awarded to the Hillsboro School in the first place.

Each year, teachers in Helena schools apply for TAG Team grants to cover classroom expenses that the school board doesn’t. These grants are reviewed by a committee that decides which requests to approve and deny. For the April round of grants, the committee consisted of Puckett, Lobell and librarian Dan Dearing.

Puckett came under fire once the community realized that he was a member of the Board of Directors at the Hillsboro School. Since then, complaints were filed against Puckett with the ethics committee.

“Did I receive anything of financial gain or any type of benefits for this money going to these teachers? No, I did not. Do I have a child or have children that are at the school—because that was mentioned that I do? I do not,” Puckett said. “I served in a volunteer, non-paid role as a volunteer on the Board of Directors for the Hillsboro School. An inactive member, now.”

Mayor Puckett also released a personal statement regarding comments he made on social media during the controversy.

“I apologize to the citizens of Helena, this city council and the persons I directed my comments on social media earlier this month. The comments were uncalled for and out of place,” Puckett said. “No matter how my family or myself gets attacked on social media, I should never respond the way that I did, and to that specific individual, I’m truly sorry.”

After the initial controversy, The Hillsboro school returned $18,220.94 to the city of Helena. Cofounder and Chairperson of the Hillsboro Board of Directors Connie Edwards released a letter clarifying Puckett’s position on its school board.

“Neither Brian Puckett nor anyone in his family has directly benefitted from The Hillsboro School,” the letter read. “Although he has served as a member of the school board, none of Mr. Puckett’s family members has ever attended the school. Additionally, it is important to note that Mr. Puckett has never received any form of compensation from the school for his volunteer service on the board.”

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