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Leaders hope for safe travels, big spending during ECU commencement weekend

Traffic is expected to reach football gameday levels today as thousands of East Carolina University students and their families celebrate a commencement ceremony that many hope will serve as a much-needed boost to the local economy.

Today’s graduation at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is one of the first large in-person events Greenville has been able host to since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. With last year’s ceremony canceled due to health concerns, three ceremonies are scheduled this year in what campus leaders are calling an all-day affair.

“It’s hard to believe it has been December of 2019 since we’ve had an in-person commencement ceremony,” said Chris Stansbury, commencement co-chairman for ECU. “We’re thrilled, even if it is not the full capacity of what we’ve been able to do in the past, to have our class of 2021 and about 500 of our class of 2020 come back and be in person. We hope the weather cooperates and everything will be wonderful.”

In total, ECU expects 4,200 graduates to turn their tassels during the ceremonies — one at 9 a.m., another at 1 p.m. and a graduate student ceremony at 5 p.m.

Kate Teel, Pitt-Greenville Chamber of Commerce president, said that commencement is a big addition to what is already a full weekend for local businesses.

“We want to put on our best show,” she said. “This weekend is big for the region. Cinco de Mayo on Thursday along with Teacher Appreciation Week, Nurse Appreciation and Mother’s Day Sunday. Putting commencement on top of that is going to have people coming to town.”

Andrew Schmidt, president and CEO of Visit Greenville NC, said that the “full out” weekend is going to be a much-needed heat check for industries that were hamstrung by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is a badly needed shot in the arm for our economy,” Schmidt said. “The pandemic caused so much heartache for the travel and tourism industries. We just couldn’t have any real in-person events. Now is our shot for getting people back in town.”

With those people will come traffic, and ECU police are encouraging residents without business in the area near Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to avoid it.

Capt. Chris Sutton said that areas to avoid include Charles Boulevard near Greenville Boulevard and 10th Street, 14th Street between Elm Street and Evans Street and Elm Street from Greenville Boulevard to 10th Street. Delays should also be expected on Greenville Boulevard between 10th and Arlington.

The keynote address for undergraduate ceremonies will be delivered by University of North Carolina System President Peter Hans. All three will be streamed at commencement.ecu.edu.

State broadband survey helping ensure connectivity, officials said

North Carolina’s broadband office is encouraging everyone to complete a survey that officials said will help them build a better infrastructure and ensure more people can access high-speed internet.

So far, just over 500 people in Pitt County have responded to the North Carolina Broadband Survey, which displays survey results as they are tabulated by the Department of Information Technology’s Broadband Infrastructure Office.

Of those, the greatest majority, 31 percent are extremely dissatisfied with their service, and only 138 had download speeds of 25Mbps or greater after completing the survey’s speed test. Anything lower than 25 megabits per second is considered slow. The best services offer speeds of 1Gbps (gigabit per second), the equivalent of 1,000Mbps.

“As communities begin to survey their citizens, we will gain a better understanding of North Carolina’s internet speeds and needs, which is critical for building strategies to achieve affordable broadband access for all,” said Tracy S. Doaks, secretary of the Department of Information Technology and the state’s chief information officer.

Reliable internet access is crucial so that students can learn, teachers can teach, businesses can grow, and communities can connect, Doaks said.

The Broadband Infrastructure Office launched the survey and online results dashboard in January and so far has collected data from more than 45,000 residents across the state, said Jeff Sural, director of the office. The goal is to get at least 500,000 responses to have a statistically reliable dataset on which decisions can be based.

Sural said his office is working with community stakeholders, county leaders, leaders on local government councils, and nonprofits to encourage participation in the survey. The effort is creating marketing materials and a social media campaign to reach constituents.

“In the western part of the state, for example, the two councils of governments out there actually created their own video series promoting the survey and why it’s important to take the survey as well as the speed test so that we can collect more granular data to help inform where funding should go to improve broadband infrastructure and broadband services,” Sural said.

The Broadband Infrastructure Office helps direct funding from state, federal and other sources to local efforts to expand broadband.

Sural said the survey only takes about five minutes to complete. It asks about existing internet service and availability. “We ask about cost, how much you are paying a month, and several other questions to gauge your familiarity, literacy skills on the computer, satisfaction with the service, and we ask them to take a speed test,” he said.

To accurately gauge speed, they ask participants to connect devices directly into the routers rather than using the Wifi when possible.

“Then we get all that info on the back end and we can map that, and that gives us more info that we can use to help us determine where funding needs to go and where there are gaps within the state,” Sural said.

Dashboards available through ncbroadband.gov offer maps that offer information about the collected data, project areas and funding sources like the NC Great Grant Awards.

“Each of those shows the total number of broadband enhancement or infrastructure improvement projects around the state that are being funded by the state’s rural broadband grant program,” said Sural. “To date we have distributed almost $55 million in grant funds that is being matched by private sector investments of about $35 million.”

Residents who don’t have internet service can still take the survey using their cell phone to provide much-needed information for mapping areas that need assistance to access it online — although the speed test won’t apply.

Residents also can call or text to answer a few questions.

“Typically what we’re simply asking is if you do not have service whatsoever, text in or call in your address and we will get that info and map that,” said Sural.

“We don’t get information from internet service providers on where exactly they are providing services,” said Sural. “A lot of times we just don’t know who has good internet service, who does not have good internet service, and so we are going directly to the homeowners, families, and businesses in the community to find out.”

ECU's 2021 spring commencement includes members from the Class of 2020

Students in Karli Komar’s kindergarten class might be a little confused about why their teacher is missing school today to graduate from ECU. After all, Komar has shown them pictures of herself in wearing her cap and gown, celebrating her college graduation with friends last year.

But today is a graduation “do-over” of sorts as Komar and members of the Class of 2020 have been invited to join the Class of 2021 for the university’s 112th spring commencement. University of North Carolina System President Peter Hans will be keynote speaker.

About 4,000 graduates are expected to attend one of three ceremonies at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium that mark ECU’s first in-person commencements since December 2019. Both spring and fall graduations last year were virtual events due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Today’s commencement is an inaugural event for Chancellor Philip Rogers, a Greenville native and former ECU chief of staff who became the university’s 12th chancellor in March of this year.

It also is a milestone for Komar; the Clayton native is the first in her family to receive a college diploma. That is the main reason she decided to wear her cap and gown again today, a year after her degree was conferred.

“It’s a big life thing that we didn’t get to have,” Komar said. “My parents really wanted me to do it, so I’m going to do it for them.”

On her original graduation day, May 8, 2020, Komar got together with a few friends to view ECU’s virtual commencement ceremony.

“I still have pictures,” she said. “We watched that and wore our caps and gowns and pretended.”

For her parents, the day was business as usual. Both went to work and hoped that they would have the chance to see their daughter cross an ECU stage later in the year. But increases in the state’s COVID-19 infection rate last fall kept December’s graduation online as well.

By that time, Komar was almost half-way through her first year as a teacher at Winterville’s Creekside Elementary School, where she had worked as an intern the previous school year before COVID-19 shutdowns.

“I looked at it as everyone’s kind of a first-year teacher because everything’s so different. Everyone’s kind of learning together,” Komar said. “It’s been crazy. Constantly things are changing, but it has been a great year.”

Near the end of an eventful first year as a teacher, college graduation seems like a distant memory. But Komar wanted her parents to have an experience they could remember, so she and a handful of friends signed up for the ceremony.

“I appreciate that ECU is still providing an opportunity for people who want to participate in a graduation,” she said. “I still feel like it’s not the full experience of a graduation, but it’s certainly better than nothing.”

Unlike previous graduations, there will be no processional. Members of the Class of 2021 will be seated on the field 6 feet apart prior to the ceremony.

Due to limited space on the field, members of the Class of 2020 will be seated in a designated section of the stadium with their guests.

Jacob Kriminger, who is receiving his graduate degree at this evening’s ceremony, doesn’t mind the new seating arrangement. The Salisbury native, who completed his master’s in science and securities studies in December, will attend the ceremony with his wife and daughter by his side.

“I do think that’s an unintended benefit,” Kriminger said. “I certainly appreciate that, being able to be with my daughter when everything is happening. She’ll be right beside me.”

Although he is a first-generation college student, this is not his first college commencement. Kriminger graduated from ECU with degrees in political science and history in 2018.

He got a chance to hear his name being called at the departmental graduations, which are not being held this year due to COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, Kriminger was on pace to complete his graduate degree in May 2020. Despite the fact that his courses were online, the closure of Joyner Library delayed some of his research. After he defended his dissertation in December, Kriminger, who was working nights at the time, barely had time to tune in for the virtual winter commencement.

“I just woke up watched it with my family and then I went back to sleep,” he said, laughing. “Kind of uneventful.”

Today’s ceremony will be different. Kriminger, a probation and parole officer with the Department of Public Safety, will leave work early and will arrive for graduation wearing his master’s hood and his honors stoles.

“Honestly, I’m just happy that they’re doing something,” he said. “No matter how small, I would have been appreciative of it.

“It is mainly important to show my daughter the importance of education and how that can benefit you,” he said. “Even if I didn’t live in Greenville, I would have traveled just to show her.”

ECU will host commencement ceremonies at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. today in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Attendance is limited. Tickets and face coverings are required. The commencement will be livestreamed at commencement.ecu.edu.

Pitt County budget approved for June 8 public hearing

Pitt County’s $281.4 million budget has been approved to go before a public hearing following a three-day workshop by the Board of Commissioners.

A motion from Commissioner Chris Nunnally passed unanimously Thursday morning that would incorporate the budget as written with one small addition — $2,000 for repairs that will help reopen the Fountain Library.

The 2021-22 spending plan includes a half-cent decrease in the county’s property tax rate and a nearly 9 percent increase in spending thanks to a transfer from reserves.

Prior to the vote, the board heard from Pitt County Schools and Pitt Community College leaders. Both entities were recommended by county staff to receive full funding of requests that were reviewed during their presentations. Commissioners voiced approval to the decision by staff.

The school system will receive $44,303,624 million in funding should the budget be approved as it stands after a public hearing set for June 8. The funding is a $1.8 million increase from 2020-21 allocations.

Superintendent Ethan Lenker said that he planned to use money for general operations as well as to increase minimum pay for teachers and assistant principals. Lenker also wants to incorporate teaching and principal fellows programs to allow the county to “grow their own” educators.

Pitt Community College will receive $6,503,326 in funding should the budget pass. That is a $234,415 increase from the previous budget. Among uses for the money is a “last dollar” Bulldog Promise Scholarship that will cover four semesters of tuition for students who meet requirements. That money would be applied to students only after other financial aid outlets had been exhausted.

PCC Vice President of Administrative Services Rick Owens also said that the main priority for funding is to move forward with a Workforce Technology Building. The project would house efforts to “build a workforce pipeline” that serves existing industries in Pitt County and also encourages growth. The anticipated total cost for the 52,600-square-foot facility is $18.76 million.

Commissioners Mike Fitzpatrick and Lauren White were absent from the meeting but did call in to vote on Nunnally’s motion. White commented in an email read by Elliott that constituents in her district have been calling for overhead coverings to be installed at drop-off areas outside of schools.

The June 8 public hearing is set for at 6 p.m. The board has been meetings virtually and the feed has been available on Suddenlink channel 13 and Pitt County’s YouTube channel.

Sheriff’s office update

County Manager Scott Elliott and Chief Financial Officer Brian Barnett followed up on questions raised by Sheriff Paula Dance Wednesday about $2.3 million she classified as revenue.

The school system and Pitt Greenville Airport pay the agency about $1.3 million for services provided by deputies, Elliott and Barnett said. The payments only cover the cost of the services and can’t be considered revenue, Barnett said.

Another $1 million in revenue is generated by fees charged by the sheriff’s office for services like processing permits and court papers.

Regardless, all the funds are returned to the sheriff’s office as part of its annual allocation, Barnett said. He assured the board that the money is not funding operation outside the sheriff’s office.

Technical difficulties

Computer troubles again bogged down the commissioner’s virtual meeting.

Following the presentation by Superintendent Lenker, the board took a five-minute recess. When they returned, Commissioner Beth Ward was having computer issues.

The meeting was put on hold for over half an hour as staff attempted to re-establish her connection. Ward decided to travel to the public meeting space where commissioner meetings are held alongside Elliott.

Not long after, Commissioner Mary Perkins-Williams also dropped from the call for an extended time.

Prior to moving to a closed session, Perkins-Williams called on Chairwoman Ann Floyd-Huggins and staff to decide whether a return to in-person meetings is on the agenda.

Elliott told Floyd-Huggins that he would meet with Public Health Director John Silvernail regarding the safety of a return to meetings.

Elliott plans to present those findings by the May 17 meeting of the board. Should the group go back to an in-person format for that meeting, the public will be informed.