The Oconee County Board of Education Monday evening tabled a proposal from school administrators that Oconee County Schools begin charging the county Parks and Recreation Department for use of school athletic fields.
Dallas LeDuff, director of student services for Oconee County Schools, presented the School Board with a revision of his proposal from a week earlier that phased in the usage fees across the three years of a new joint use agreement with the county.
Three of the four Board of Education members present spoke in favor of the new agreement, but when Board Member Amy Parrish said she preferred to wait until Board Chair Tom Odom was present to make a final decision, the other three Board members joined Parrish in voting to table the proposal.
The Monday meeting was an unusual one, lasting nearly 90 minutes and including lengthy critical statements on three different topics aimed at the Board of Commissioners by School Board Member Tim Burgess.
Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell rose during the citizen comment section at the very end of the meeting to address the School Board and propose that the two Boards meet together on three dates running through January of 2021 to create a setting for improved communication.
Board of Education Member Wayne Bagley had proposed that the Board of Commissioners hold a special session at one of the schools to explain its plans for improvements to Malcom Bridge Road, but Daniell said this could be discussed at the upcoming Town Hall meeting scheduled for April 14.
The Board of Education rejected that plan and instructed School Superintendent Jason Branch to contact County Administrator Justin Kirouac to set up a meeting devoted exclusively to the road work planned at the entrances to Malcom Bridge Middle School and Malcom Bridge Elementary School.
LeDuff had presented a proposed replacement for a 2010 Joint Use Agreement between the school system and the county at the Board of Education work session on March 2, and the revisions he offered on Monday were a result of feedback he received from Board members.
Superintendent Jason Branch, at the meeting on March 2, had said he was seeking guidance from the Board on whether it wanted to begin charging the county for use of school sports facilities and on the length of the agreement.
On Monday, Branch asked LeDuff to update the Board on those changes as part of Branch’s request for Board action on the new Joint Use Agreement.
Under the initial proposal, the school system would have begun charging the county fees on July 1.
Under the existing 2010 agreement, the school system does not charge the county for use of school facilities, and the county does not charge the school system for use of park facilities.
On Monday, LeDuff proposed that the fees the school system charges the county be discounted by 8 percent in the first year of the agreement, by 4 percent in the second year, and reach the full amount in the third year, or in 2023.
LeDuff emphasized that the fees were not new. They had been in place since at least 2017, he said, and the school system has changed these fees for nonprofits since that time, but they had not been charging the county’s Parks and Recreation Department because of that 2010 agreement.
The 2010 Joint Use Agreement was set to expire in November of this year, but, consistent with the provisions of the contract, the school system has moved the expiration date forward to June 30.
Oconee County Schools asked Facilitron, a national firm that does work on Georgia, to study use of the school system’s facilities and costs, LeDuff said at the work session last week.
|Bagley, Burgess, LeDuff 3/9/2020|
Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communications for the school system, told me after the work session last week that Oconee County Schools did not pay for the Facilitron study.
Facilitron estimated what it said were the real costs for use of the sports facilities, and those costs were higher than those already set by the school system for nonprofit use.
Oconee County Schools did not increase the fees for nonprofits as a result of the Facilitron study, meaning that, based on the Facilitron estimate, the school system is not recovering full costs from non-profits at present and would not under the terms of the new Joint Use Agreement, LeDuff told the Board on Monday.
LeDuff, at the meeting last week, estimated that the school system would charge the county $137,440 this year for use of its facilities, and Facilitron said the real cost was $160,777.
Lisa Davol, director of the Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department, has told the Board of Commissioners that she expects the costs to the county under the school system’s proposal to be much lower–$60,000.
Davol told me before the meeting on Monday that she has not been able to date to determine the source of the discrepancy betweem her and LeDuff’s estimates.
Prior to Supt. Branch asking the Board of Education members to vote on action items on Monday, including on the new Joint Use Agreement, Vice Chair Kim Argo, who was running the meeting in the absence of Board Chair Odom, opened the floor for persons who had signed up in advance to speak.
Dan Magee, 1120 Loch Lomond Circle, near Butler’s Crossing, came forward, and reminded the Board that, at its work session on March 2, the Oconee County High School football team had been honored for finishing runner-up in the state in its division.
“About half or more of those players played rec ball for the Parks and Rec Department in the Oconee Youth Football League,” Magee said.
“No other school system in the region charges their Parks and Rec Department an hourly fee. No other one,” he said. Magee is director of the Barrow County Parks, Recreation and Leisure Services Department.
Magee said the fee proposed by the school system is a “form of double taxation. Taxpayers like myself have paid for these facilities through ESPLOST and property tax.” ESPLOST stands for Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The School System uses the term ELOST, or Education Local Option Sales Tax.
Magee also said that most joint use agreements between the school systems and counties for use of athletic facilities are normally for 10-year-periods, not for three years.
None of the Board members responded to Magee immediately after he spoke, but several did reference his comments when they talked subsequently about the about the proposed new Joint Use Agreement.
John Gentry, former director of Parks and Recreation for Oconee County who lives at 1030 Chestnut Lane off Daniells Bridge Road, sent the Board a lengthy email before the meeting saying he was out of the county and could not attend and voiced strong opposition to the imposition of fees. (Gentry also posted his comment on an earlier report on this blog.)
Burgess Reaction To Joint Use Agreement
Burgess was the first to respond to LeDuff following his presentation of the revised Joint Use Agreement, and he talked for nine minutes, with only a short pause to allow for a question by Argo.
“It seems as though this is being discussed as an arbitrary, punitive fee schedule attached to recoup costs associated with construction of these facilities,” said Burgess, whose term expires at the end of the year. He is seeking re-election with Democratic opposition in November.
“If I understand this correctly,” Burgess said, “what we’re talking about is we’re not asking any of the users, whether they be non-profit or the Rec Department, to help us recoup the costs of building the facilities, for putting new turf on the football field, for putting new lighting on all the football fields, or any of the other costs that it took to build and place those facilities in place.
“To me, what we’re saying is there’s an ongoing maintenance cost to keep those facilities in good shape for all users,” he continued. “First for the academic users of our programs, but secondly for any other users that may choose to want to use these facilities.”
“There’s a disconnect with this that I think is an issue in terms of the narrative about how this is being debated that’s at the root of some of what’s causing a lot of consternation, causing individuals like Mr. Magee to come and speak to us tonight,” Burgess said.
Bagley On Proposal
Board Member Bagley, who followed Burgess, spoke for only three minutes and noted that the county Parks and Recreation Department imposes fees on users of its facilities, recognizing the need to recover costs. Bagley’s term on the Board also ends on Dec. 31, but he is not seeking re-election.
The county has not charged fees to the school system under the existing Joint Use Agreement and has said it does not plan to change them under a new agreement.
“Every county does things differently,” Bagley said. “We’re not like every other county.
“I’m proud to live in Oconee County,” he said. “I think we’re an exceptional county, and I think we offer much, much more than a lot of counties around us.
“But that does come with a cost,” Bagley said.
“It is not without expense to keep those facilities in as nice and working order as they are,” he said.
Parrish And Reassessment
“Initially, when this came up, my reaction was no, let’s just maintain the status quo, maintain a good relationship with one of our government partners and because that was the easy way to go too,” Parrish said in her brief comments.
“But then I took a step back and had to realize that I also might not be objective since my family has participated in Parks and Rec programs.”
"I realized I needed to take my emotions and personal perspective out of it,” she said. As a result of her reassessment, she said, she realized charging the county for use of the facilities “was the right thing to do as a business person.”
“I believe this issue has brought out good dialog,” she added, “but I’m not convinced all of the dialog is directly related to the Board of Education.”
Some is directed at the fees charged by the Parks and Recreation Department as well, she said.
Argo On Children
Argo, who also spoke briefly, said she, too, had a long history with the county’s Parks and Recreation Department.
She said she served on the advisory board for the Parks and Recreation Department for 20 years and chaired the advisory board “for many years.”
“It’s hard to divide the two and try to make the right decision,” she said. “We want what’s best for the children of the county. And we want to do the fair thing. I’m a little torn on this one.”
When Supt. Branch moved forward with the revised joint use agreement put forward by LeDuff and “recommended approval if you are ready to do so,” Parrish instead made a motion that the action be tabled, saying “I’m not completely there yet” and that she wanted Odom present for the discussion.
Bagley seconded the motion, and, without further discussion, the Board approved the motion.
Earlier in the meeting, Saranna Charping, chief financial officer for Oconee County Schools, gave her usual Business Services report to the Board of Education.
Charping’s presentation included the monthly cash report, vendor report, budget report, Education Local Option Sales Tax receipts report, and Education Local Option Sales Tax V spending report.
She told the Board that while Education Local Option Sales Tax collections overall are down versus a year ago, collections for January of 2020 were up 3.92 percent from January of 2019.
Charping also reported that the school system had issued a Total Benefit Statement (Hidden Paycheck) to all school system employees.
The example statement shown to the Board for a teacher with a master’s degree and 15 years of experience lists $63,297 in base salary and the total benefit package, including employer paid Medicare taxes, state retirement contributions, and 403(b) contributions, resulting in total benefits of $92,386.
After Charping finished her report, Burgess used the monthly cash report as a springboard for what was the first of his lengthy comments. This one ran more than five minutes.
Burgess is former budget director for the state under two governors and also was senior vice president for finance and administration at the University of Georgia prior to his retirement.
Tax Collection Fee
Charping reported that the school system had received $33,494,936 in ad valorum (property) taxes for the Fiscal Year 2020 that ends on June 30 and that this amount was 101.3 percent of the projected revenue in the school system’s General Fund budget.
“This figure is net what we pay the county for collection of taxes, right?” Burgess began, and Charping agreed.
“Do you know, for this year, how much that’s going to be?” Burgess said, referring to the county fee for collecting the tax.
“They charge 2.5 percent,” Charping said. “So we’re on track, that will probably be nearly $900,000.”
“So we’re going to pay this almost $900,000 to the county for them to collect the ad valorum taxes on behalf of the school system?” Burgess asked. Charping agreed.
“I think what I saw was that the entire budget for the whole Tax Commissioner’s Office was only $534,000,” Burgess continued, “but they are going to charge us $900,000 this year to collect the taxes. Which is almost $400,000 more than whole budget for the Tax Commissioner.”
Question Of Other Board Members
At this point, Burgess turned to the other Board members.
“I don’t know about you all,” he said, “but when I get my tax bill from the county, it is one tax bill with all of the taxes that are due, county taxes and school taxes and everything else, and I’m not asked to send two checks in, one to the county and one to the School Board.
“I’m asked to send one check in to the county,” Burgess said. “So they’re collecting the taxes for the whole system, which is a constitutionally required responsibility of the county through the Tax Commissioner.”
“And all they are really doing,” Burgess said, turning back to Charping, “is then turning around, once they’ve collected all of that, is writing a check to us on a monthly or quarterly basis, however we receive it, for the collections that she’s received, that the county’s received on behalf of the school system?” Jennifer Riddle is the Tax Commissioner.
“Yes Sir,” Charping replied.
“But for whatever reason, we’re paying into the county, almost $400,000 more than it takes to pay for the whole Tax Commissioner’s job, including collecting for the county and everybody else.”
“I don’t know what, that just doesn’t seem, I don’t understand the rationale for that,” Burgess continued. “But obviously it’s a practice that has been out there for quite a while.
“And I would just ask the question, what is it that would be done with the other $300,000 or $400,000 over and above what it takes to fund the whole Tax Commissioner’s Office, not just the pro-rata share that it might take to collect on behalf of the school system?
“Just a question,” Burgess said. “Just a question.”
Tax Commissioner Riddle sends to property owners a statement each year that breaks down tax statements, separating out the amount that is owed to the county and to Oconee County Schools.
The county millage rate is 10.826 but that amount is reduced by 3.2 mills because of the tax rollback linked to the county’s Local Option Sales Tax, and .940 for an allowed insurance rollback, resulting in a county millage rate of 6.686.
The millage rate for the county schools is 16.5, meaning that the property owner is paying more than twice as much to Oconee County Schools as to Oconee County itself.
Residents of the county’s four cities pay a different millage rate plus a tax to the city based on its millage rate.
As Burgess stated, the property owner makes one payment based on a combination of these rates.
State law specifies that Tax Commission is to collect school taxes and “is entitled to a commission of 2 1/2 percent for collecting the taxes.”
The Tax Commissioner does not do the property appraisals that are used to calculate the taxes to be paid. In Oconee County, appraisals are done by the Property Appraisal Department.
Both the Tax Commissioner and the Property Appraisal Department, as well as the Sheriff’s Office and most other departments of the county, are funded through the county’s General Fund, which is budgeted at $30.5 million for Fiscal Year 2020.
The General Fund Budget for Oconee County Schools in the current fiscal year is $82.3 million.
Source Of Burgess’ Figures
The monthly cash report that Charping presented to the Board did not include the $900,000 figure that Burgess used–and Charping confirmed--at the meeting.
Since the $900,000 figure was not in the documents Charping presented to the Board, I asked Burgess late on Monday evening (actually 12:46 a.m. on Tuesday) to explain the calculation and source of the $900,000 figure.
In an email message Burgess sent me on Tuesday morning, he said that “In FY 19 I think we paid to the county a fee of about $883,000 based on the total collections for that year.
“Assuming that our collections for FY 20 will exceed, by some amount, what we have in our budget,” Burgess said, “I think Saranna is simply estimating what she expects the FY 20 fee to be when all accounts are closed. If you want a more precise estimate, then I suggest you clarify with her.”
School System And County Confirmation
I had asked Communications Director Sullivan for assistance with the calculations late on Monday and again on Tuesday morning.
“In FY 19, Oconee County Schools paid approximately $883,000 to the tax commissioner to collect all ad valorem taxes. So far in FY 20, OCS has paid approximately $878,000,” Sullivan wrote on Tuesday.
I also asked Diane Baggett, communications manager, for Oconee County, for assistance.
Baggett said in an email message on Tuesday that in “For FY2019, actual school commission numbers for the school are $72,518 for Motor Vehicle (ad valorem and TAVT) and $810,455 for Property Tax, which comes to a total of $882,973.” TAVT stands for Title Ad Valorem Tax.
According to the county’s adopted Fiscal Year 2020 budget, the budget for the Tax Commissioner Office is $533,912, rounded to the $534,000 figure Burgess used.
The budget for the Property Appraisal Department is an additional $708,635.
Question Of Toole
Following Charping's report, Chief Operating Officer Brock Toole presented the Board with a recommendation that it accept the bid by Cornatzer and Associates Inc. of Cumming, for LED lighting at the field at North Oconee High School.
Cornatzer submitted the low bid of $702,195 that also included lights for the Oconee County Middle School field.
Work on the lights will be completed by the start of school in August, Toole told the Board.
Following the Board’s approval of the bid, Burgess said “While we’ve got him standing there, can I ask him another question?”
“In your report last week, you mentioned that you didn’t have any more information about road improvements or changes at Malcom Bridge Middle School and Elementary School. Is that still your current perspective? In the ensuing week, you’ve gotten no more details, no information about that?”
Toole said he had not.
“Can I take a second to say something?” Burgess asked of Argo.
Explanation Of Disagreement
Burgess took nearly four minutes, and what evolved was a clear statement about the disagreement between the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners regarding the entrances to the two schools that has remained out of the public view since late summer of 2018.
Commission Chair John Daniell proposed initially that four roundabouts be built on Malcom Bridge Road between Lenru Road and Mars Hill Road.
Daniell and other members of the Board of Commissioners have said repeatedly that their goal was to get sheriff’s deputies out of the roads. Deputies work for the Sheriff, but they are county employees paid from the county’s General Fund budget, which the Commission controls.
Commission members have frequently cited the death of Deputy Sheriff David Gilstrap who was struck and killed by a vehicle in the early morning of Oct. 8, 2008, while directing traffic in front of Oconee County Primary School on Hog Mountain Road.
The driver of the car said it was before sunrise on a wet day, that Gilstrap’s patrol vehicle was parked in the middle of the road, and that he was wearing a reflective vest and had illuminated batons.
The driver said in court records that she slowed down but did not see Gilstrap until she struck him from the rear. Gilstrap died in the hospital later that night.
Prior to the meeting on Monday, Board of Education members had given little indication that they had been involved in discussions with members of the Board of Commissioners regarding improvements to Malcom Bridge Road, suggesting that they were not informed about county plans.
I learned of a series of meetings between Board of Education members Burgess and Bagley and Board of Commissioners members Daniell and Mark Thomas through an open records request. All four subsequently confirmed that the meetings took place and that topic was the roadwork on Malcom Bridge Road.
Neither Bagley nor Burgess responded to my request that they explain the nature of their stated “concerns” about the proposed roundabouts.
“For about a year and a half,” Burgess said on Monday, “we’ve been in the conversation about changing the road network in front of Malcom Bridge Middle School and Malcom Bridge Elementary School.
“You’ll recall the county came to us with a scenario that a developer was going to be building a new shopping center right across the street from Malcom Bridge Middle School,” Burgess said.
“And one of the reasons was, because of that new development, some road changes needed to be put in place over there, and a proposal was forwarded for a roundabout in front of the elementary school and the middle school,” he continued.
“Over the ensuring 18 months,” Burgess said, “There’s been a lot of conversations between us and the members of the Commission about that concept, that proposal, what it meant and the timing of it.”
Burgess Wants Deputies
“My short point is there’s been a lot of discussion between us and the Commission about those changes,” he continued. “I think we’ve made it fairly clear that we were not overly enthused or supportive of those changes.
“And at least for me, the primary problem from the very beginning has been that the effect of those changes was going to eliminate a deputy sheriff directing traffic in front of the middle school and parent entrance and elementary school.”
“It is a long standing tradition in this county for us to have sheriff’s deputies in front of all of our schools directing traffic and helping in an orderly transition and a safe transition in the morning,” Burgess said, “and out of the schools in the afternoon.”
“We’ve seen proposals for roundabouts,” Burgess said. “We’ve seen other proposals for other types of changes in addition to roundabouts in front of those schools in the ensuring months and as recently as just a few months ago that all have that same effect.
“They eliminate the possibility of a sheriff’s deputy continuing to direct traffic in front of those schools,” Burgess said, “and I’ve just got an issue with that.
“And I just feel like I needed to say that tonight because this is continuing to go on and on and on,” Burgess said. “We’re talking a lot but discussion doesn’t always bring agreement. And I don’t feel like we’ve got an agreement what is the most appropriate thing to do over there.”
Bagley responded by saying “It is not in our purview to do road improvements. That’s Oconee County.”
Bagley said, however, that the Board of Commissioners “should have a stakeholders meeting and share what their intentions are with the road modifications.”
In response to Bagley, Supt. Branch said he could make available to the county space in one or the other of the two schools.
Burgess also responded to Bagley, saying “I drove to the primary school, the elementary school and the middle school,” indicating that was where he took his children. It also was where Gilstrap was killed, though Burgess did not say that.
“I saw those officers out there every morning, regardless of weather, regardless of everything else, they were out there controlling the flow and the safety of that traffic going in and out of those schools,” Burgess said.
At the end of the meeting, the Board of Education allows people in the audience who have not registered to speak to talk for three minutes on a topic from the agenda.
Daniell, who had been sitting in the audience throughout the meeting, jumped to his feet when given the opportunity.
Daniell said the Board of Commissioners already has a Town Hall Meeting scheduled for April 14 at the Community Center in Oconee Veterans Park and that would be an ideal time to get citizen feedback on the latest plans for the entrances to the schools on Malcom Bridge Road.
He said he was still waiting on comments from the Board of Education on plans under consideration.
“All of us know each other, outside of our Board roles,” Daniell said. “We get along very, very well. But it seems like something gets lost in the translation when we’re together in the groups. Some of the struggles are based on just fundamental disagreements.”
“Some struggles relates to not everyone being at the table at the same time,” he said.
“What I’d like to propose is that we have a joint Town Hall meeting with both Boards in front of the community,” Daniell said.
Among the topics that could be discussed are the fees for collecting taxes, budgets, and Malcom Bridge Road, he said.
He proposed May 28, Aug. 27, and Jan. 28 of 2021 and said he has reserved the Civic Center at 7 p.m. on May 28 pending approval of the School Board members.
Response to Daniell
Burgess asked Daniell if he would consider a separate meeting on the road projects on Malcom Bridge Road, and Daniell said “possibly.”
“Scheduling “is going to be very tough,” Daniell said, because the Board of Commissioners will schedule two other Town Hall meetings on renewal of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which will be on the ballot in November.
He also said the May 19 primary will complicate the schedule in the upcoming months.
Bagley joined Burgess in asking for a separate meeting.
Once Daniell sat down, Supt. Branch asked the Board members if they wanted him to ask County Administrator Justin Kirouac to set up a separate meeting between the commissioners and the public regarding the Malcom Bridge Road improvements, and they indicated that they did.
At the beginning of the meeting on Monday, the Board held its usual recognitions session.
The Board congratulated the Middle School All--State Chorus awardees Juliana Bluhm and Keira Moore.
The Board will recognized the Middle School All- State Band awardees.
They were Maria Munoz-Ayala --1st Chair Trumpet, and Brody Barnes - Baritone Saxophone - Alternate.
The summary narrative of the 90 minute meeting above does not follow the order of events at the meeting itself. I summarized discussion of the Joint Use Agreement at top of the post, though actual vote on tabling the agreement occurred late in the meeting.
The video below is of the March 9 meeting of the Board of Education as it occurred.
Recognitions begin at 1:05 in the video.
Charping made her business report at 20:17 in the video, and Burgess followed with his comments on the Tax Commissioner Office at 22:30.
Magee spoke on the Joint Use Agreement at 27:48 in the video.
LeDuff began discussion of the revised joint use agreement at 35:10 in the video and was followed by comments by Burgess, Bagley, Parrish, and Argo, in that order.
Discussion of the North Oconee High School lighting begins at 58:39 in the video and is followed by Burgess’ comments on roundabouts.
Daniell spoke at 1:13:50.