- Mile Markers
- Is the ‘yak, yak, yak’ back in rural Georgia?
Is the ‘yak, yak, yak’ back in rural Georgia?
Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.
01: Postcards: Hiring challenges, grant concerns in rural Georgia.
02: Roadside Attractions: Building rural support on big campuses.
Before we dive in this week, I wanted to let you know that now through Dec. 31 donations of up to $1,000 are triple-matched. If we raise $20,000 in donations from readers like you, Open Campus will receive $40,000 in matching funds this year!
Support my coverage of rural issues and make your tax-deductible donation today.
Traversing the muddy backroads of Taliaferro County, Ga. (Photo: Nick Fouriezos)
“Time to stir up the pot again!” the email reads, as a message from Allen Fort hits my inbox once more.
Some readers may remember Fort, an educator for four decades and the superintendent of Taliaferro County, Ga., whose frustrating attempt to bring broadband to his community we chronicled last year.
Back then, Fort was already saying he was tired of all the “yak, yak, yak” that lawmakers gave while promising aid to help rural, poor districts like his without actually bringing any meaningful change.
And now, he believes, the “yak” is back. But, first, some context.
As I reported previously, Taliaferro County is exactly the type of community that the Biden administration and Congress have promised to support in recent years, setting aside more than $400 billion across two major spending packages in 2021 alone.
State leaders and university officials in Georgia have made similar buzz,promising three things in recent years: countywide wifi connectivity, a fully operational healthcare clinic, and mental health services for the county’s students, the majority of whom are Black or Latino.
However, the promised broadband collapsed under a mess of bureaucracy and federal map confusion, as we previously wrote. Despite launching the health clinic, Fort says it never got the support it needed from a publicized partnership with Emory University.
Then there was the federal grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration.
Awarded in 2019, the $1.5 million HRSA grant was meant to provide Taliaferro County and other counties served by Augusta University with telehealth equipment and virtual access to two health professionals: a family nurse practitioner and a psychiatric nurse practitioner.
They were able to find a family nurse to offer those virtual services. But after four years, Augusta University was never able to find somebody to take the psych nurse job and now the grant will end without it ever having been filled.
“The specific reason we are being directed to end the program is that the grant is scheduled to end in June 2024 and at the present time, we still do not have the required mental health provider needed to deliver on that part of the grant,” Caroline McKinnon, an associate professor serving as principal investigator on the grant, wrote to Fort in a November 15 email, which he passed along to us.
“Even if we were able to hire someone, it is unlikely that we would have much time for that person to work before the end of the grant. Accordingly, we are making the decision now that it would not be ethically reasonable to start services for such a short period of time.”
Taliaferro County superintendent Alan Fort (Photo: Nick Fouriezos)
That decision has frustrated Fort, who wrote to me saying it was “quite indicative of today's society & government and the way they get the positive publicity in the beginning, then leave…”
Whether or not his indictment is totally fair is arguable: Particularly for the HRSA grant, I wasn’t able to find many signs of self-promotion (or even a single press release).
However, the incident highlights some of the long-simmering trust issues between rural communities and the education institutions that try to help them.
Colleges and universities in rural areas across the country are in the difficult position of needing to provide more services for their communities — everything from abortion providers to firefighters — while working with constrained budgets.
Plus, it can be difficult to attract the type of talent needed to make good on promises made, especially as rising housing costs have made some rural places unlivable on the wages institutions can afford to pay.
“I’ve been a psych nurse all my career, and everywhere I’ve gone, including Georgia, it’s been problematic. It only got worse during the pandemic,” McKinnon told me over the phone, adding that 153 of 159 counties in Georgia are currently designated as mental health shortage areas.
“The fact is that all 6 that don’t have shortages are in the Atlanta metro area.”
In this case, McKinnon says they were able to provide some mental health services through a social worker who the university employed for around two years of the grant.
Although that social worker wasn’t able to prescribe medication, they were able to offer telehealth therapy-like services that Taliaferro County rarely took advantage of, she says (I asked for documents, but she hadn’t provided them as of press time).
“I appreciate the notion that there may be some mistrust issues when universities don’t deliver to rural counties,” McKinnon says. “But that might be a little disingenuous in this case. There were mental health services available to Taliaferro County and other partners, and I don’t know what happened in terms of them never getting people to use the services.”
Taliaferro County did its part, Fort argues, providing space and other support for the telehealth equipment, per the grant agreement with Augusta University. He did not offer a comment on McKinnon’s claim that Taliaferro County had participated less than other similar rural Georgia schools that were included in the grant.
Regardless of who exactly is at fault, it’s clear that serious frustration and trust issues remain.
“While this school system (it is the poorest county in Georgia) has spent money, given time, provided human resources needed and offered a place to do these things, where we have succeeded in our part, everyone else has not,” Fort wrote in his reply to McKinnon.
“Of course, I am not blaming you, just venting, but the "system" has failed Taliaferro County. We have done everything asked of us. We have never asked for it to be free; we have done our part, whether in providing money or manpower, to get these services for our people; everyone else has found a way to quit, leave town, yet on their way out, claim some credit for doing "something good.’
02: Roadside Attractions
Exploring the rural broadband gap. Non-white rural residents frequently have less access to services than white residents do. But a previous study showed that’s not true with broadband speeds. The explanation isn’t easy to come by, the Daily Yonder reports.
Building rural support on big campuses. The Hechinger Report, in an article co-published with the Los Angeles Times, writes about how universities are building new clubs and resource centers to try to address alienation and reverse high dropout rates.
Speaking of support… Read this University of Kentucky News piece about two honors students who founded HealthCare Cats, an organization that now boasts 160 students with the goal of “providing an avenue into college and health care opportunities for rural students of Kentucky.”