McClung ouster, ‘grand jury secrecy’ arrests topped local news
By Atmore News Staff
While there were numerous stories — good, bad, sometimes ugly — generated by Atmore residents, former residents or the occasional out-of-towner who ventured into the local news scene, the series of events that resulted in the ouster of the county school superintendent and the arrests of four people, including two school board members, was easily the most far-reaching of the year.
The October 18 edition of Atmore News included a story about the board of education’s 4-3 vote against offering a new contract to Superintendent of Education Michele McClung. District Attorney Steve Billy, who was quoted in the article, was one of several people who spoke in support of McClung prior to the BOE vote.
The local paper reported the next week that the DA had launched an investigation into the Escambia County School System’s handling of federal COVID relief money.
It also included a story detailing Billy’s order to have Sherry Digmon’s phone, as well as that of fellow BOE member Cindy Jackson, seized and held for several weeks while he looked into the possibility the two, each of whom voted against McClung, joined two other BOE members in illegal conference calls to discuss McClung’s future.
Two days after the publication date of the story about the probe into possible misuse of the federal relief funds and the phone seizures, the DA ordered arrest warrants issued against Digmon, the newspaper’s publisher and co-owner who approved the story, as well as Don Fletcher who wrote the story, and Victoria “Ashley” Fore, a school system bookkeeper who was believed to have been the source of the document on which the story was based. Each was charged with revealing grand jury secrets, a felony.
The legal actions against the journalists drew cries of outrage and pledges of support from a wide range of media giants — including The Washington Post, The New York Times and Cable News Network (CNN). At the same time, the Association of Alabama School Boards, several support groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as private attorneys across the nation who specialize in Constitutional law, protested the arrests of the local journalists.
But, less than a week later, Digmon was arrested again and charged with violating her oath of office by selling advertisements to the school system, and just days after that Billy launched an attempt to have the District 6 representative impeached.
Jackson, who is the District 4 BOE rep, later became the fourth person charged with revealing grand jury secrets in the wake of the vote against a new contract for the superintendent.
BOE members voted in early December to honor a request from McClung and buy out the remainder of her contract. Former Assistant Superintendent Michele Collier was named acting superintendent.
None of the criminal or civil cases had gone to court by year’s end, and all four defendants remained free on bond.
In other top news stories of the second half of 2023:
*Atmore native Chad Prewett, who had handled mostly administrative duties for the Auburn University basketball team for several years, was named assistant coach of the AU program, allowing him to spend more time as an on-court mentor.
*Escambia County Middle School gained 14 points, moving from an “F” to a “C” on its statewide “report card” to help spark a 7-point systemwide surge over the previous year’s scores and return local schools to the performance levels they achieved in 2019.
*A 10-acre site off Alabama 21, where a new We Care Thrift Store will be built next year, was dedicated.
*Escambia Academy (EA) two-way starter Quinton Odom was a first-team selection to the Alabama Independent School Association’s All-State football team. Teammates Zeke McElhaney and Keller Coston were second-team picks.
*Atmore’s Billy Glenn Rushing American Legion Post 90 celebrated its 100th year with a quiet ceremony at post headquarters.
*Escambia County High School’s (ECHS) Blue Legion marching band received Superior ratings in every category during a Daleville competition. The musical aggregation was named Grand Champion and Most Entertaining Band.
*Loumeek White and Cindy Jackson were elected by their peers as president and vice president, respectively, of the county school board.
*ECHS’s football team completed a 6-4 season that was the school’s best since 2018. Sophomore quarterback Jamarian Robinson threw 20 touchdown passes, a new school record.
*Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Anna Ellis completed her third year of a four-year program sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Organizational Management.
*Betty Cox, supervisor of emergency dispatchers for Atmore Police Department, retired after 26 years on the job.
*EA student Hannah Johnson became the first individual in several years from Escambia County’s southern region to be named the county’s Distinguished Young Woman.
*After several delays, ground was finally broken for a $2.7 million renovation of the ECHS athletic fieldhouse. On that same day, the ceremonial ribbon was cut for the school’s new IT Academy.
*Charlotte McGhee Meckel, a member of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Tribal Council, was named one of Positive Maturity’s “Top 50 Over 50.”
*Tava Johnson was selected as EA’s Homecoming Queen. Calen Bolar and Luther Moore were selected as Homecoming Queen and King, respectively, at ECHS.
*Escambia County Habitat for Humanity completed its first Atmore build in more than five years.
*Two EA cheerleaders — Ana Chesley and Tava Johnson — traveled to Hawaii to participate in the 82nd Varsity Spirit Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade.
The only traffic fatality that occurred here between July and December happened in August and involved the death of a female pedestrian and the severe beating of the man whose vehicle hit her. The man later died, and the pedestrian victim’s uncle was charged with murder.
Jimmy Jay, one of the most popular police officers in city history, died at the age of 82. The veteran cop patrolled city streets and alleys for more than 40 years.
The biggest weather story of 2023’s latter half came in the form of a prolonged drought that led to a ban on all outdoor burning within the city and eventually across the state. A wildfire burned for weeks in the Nokomis area before it was finally extinguished.
*Pride of Atmore met its long-term goal when the long-anticipated opening of the $5 million Strand Theatre / Encore project took place.
*Poarch Band of Creek Indians unveiled its new wireless network, a $5.5 million project that provides service to homes in a 38-square-mile area inside and outside the PBCI reservation.
*A Saraland company bought and renovated the Patterson Street Apartments complex, which had long been host to shootings, heavy drug use, careless littering and other criminal activity.
*City officials announced that Sky Warriors Flight Support would take over operation and management of Atmore Municipal Airport and would begin recruiting pilot candidates from students at local high schools.
*Local Radio station WGYJ (We Give You Jesus) aired its last live broadcast on August 31 and went completely silent three days later.
*West Escambia Utilities was awarded a $1.4 million loan for repairs and rehabilitation of the ancient sewer system under downtown Atmore. The local utility will have to repay only half the loan.
Festivals and such
Residents of Atmore and the surrounding area continued to crawl from the wreckage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Local festivals, parades and similar events drew large crowds. Among those:
*PBCI’s annual Thanksgiving Pow Wow celebrated its 51st staging, drawing a crowd estimated at more than 12,000.
*Relay For Life, which had been absent from the local scene for more than a decade, made its return to honor cancer victims and raise money for cancer research.
*An estimated crowd of 3,500 witnessed the annual Twilight Christmas Parade through downtown Atmore, although the holiday caravan was held on a Sunday after being postponed a day due to the threat of bad weather.
*Impressive gatherings were reported at the annual Taste of the South event, which drew what is believed to be a record crowd of more than 800; thousands attended the annual Williams Station Day festival, and the popular Myrna’s Salad Luncheon fundraiser attracted one of its biggest crowds ever.
The pattern of gunplay that plagued the city during the first half of 2023 continued into the second half, but at a much slower pace.
A 22-year-old Atmore man was shot to death after he and a Pensacola teenager argued over a faulty gun conversion switch the younger man sold him; a 65-year-old man shot a neighbor to death during a dispute over the care of the victim’s dog; and two people were slightly wounded when a gun slipped from the pants of a spectator inside the ECHS gymnasium.
*A gun violence rally, sponsored by several local preachers and held at Houston Avery Park, drew only about three dozen people, most of them ministers from outside Atmore.
Donations and gifts
*Hibbett Sports donated $3,250 to the basketball program at ECHS, one of the company’s Sole School partners, along with gift bags for players and coaches.
*The Escambia County Commission made two impressive gifts to local schools, awarding $8,000 to the ECHS band program and $5,000 to Rachel Patterson Elementary School.
*County commissioners also purchased five new Ford Escapes for use in the countywide senior meals program.
*Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce’s Atmore Community Foundation donated $1,000 to each of seven local public and private schools.
*Just prior to Thanksgiving, members of the Atmore Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi surprised shoppers at Walmarts in Atmore, Brewton and Bay Minette by choosing individuals at random and buying carts full of groceries and other items for them.
*Atmore Community Hospital officials announced the purchase of a 3D mammography machine.
*A former Atmore businessman was arrested on a first-degree theft charge after $15,000 in deposits went missing from a local tire shop at which he worked.
* Atmore Community Hospital was a stop on Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide tour in support of the effort to expand broadband service in rural areas.