Sunday, April 19, 2020

Oconee County Schools Updated Existing Plans For Online Teaching To Accommodate COVID-19 Closing, Administrator Told School Board

***New Dispute With County Emerges***

Claire Buck, chief academic officer for Oconee County Schools, told Board of Education members last Monday that the closure of the county schools on March 16 did not catch administrators and teachers without a plan.

In the first remote, live streamed meeting held by the Board, Buck said that the school system starting making changes to its Plan for Continuity of Learning In The Event of Inclement Weather on March 13 and was prepared when the schools moved to digital learning on March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, the system registered 139,675 student logins to Itslearning, the digital learning management system used by Oconee County Schools, during the month of March with the average session lasting two hours.

The live streamed meeting on Monday was the official work session for the Board of Education, and Buck and other school administrators updated the Board on what had happened since schools have been closed for the year.

Buck told the Board that State Superintendent of Education Richard Woods, with federal approval, has suspended all state assessments, including the Milestones evaluations, and Oconee County Schools has dropped all local assessments as well.

Brock Toole, chief operations officer for Oconee County Schools, told the Board that the county will be asking the school system to pay $99,675 as its share of costs for a replacement HVAC at the Civic Center, which is a joint facility of the county and Oconee County Schools.

Board Chair Tom Odom and Board Member Tim Burgess immediately criticized the county, saying this was another example of county leadership not fully informing the school system and Board of Education of county activities.

Buck’s Report To Board

Superintendent Jason Branch praised the students and staff for activities during the closure of the schools before Buck began her report, which lasted about 15 minutes.

Screen Shot During Buck's (Top Left) Presentation

Buck said the school system began using Google Meet when the schools closed to give teachers opportunities to meet with IT specialists.

The schools also identified Oconee Middle School, Rocky Branch Elementary School, and North Oconee High School parking lots as those with the best Internet connections and informed parents and students of the access available there.

Teachers also were given a chance to take a digital learning course.

During March, Buck reported, 6,998 students logged into Itslearning. The system has 8,170 students.

All students now have access to Chromebooks, she said.

“Distance learning will not have a negative impact on student grades,” Buck said. “Assignments during digital learning days will enhance student learning. Student grades will only improve and will not be lower than the grades earned by March 13.”

“Attendance reporting is not required by the teachers,” Buck said. “However our teachers are daily monitoring the progress and the engagement of students in the learning activities.

“Teachers and counselors together are reaching out to student to ensure that they are completing digital and distance learning,” Buck told the Board.

Email Exchange

Following the meeting on Monday, I requested records from County Administrator Justin Kirouac and County Clerk Kathy Hayes for correspondence between the County and the School System regarding the payments for the HVAC replacement at the Civic Center.

Hayes is the open records officer for the county.

In response I was provided an email message from Superintendent Branch to Kirouac on April in which Branch said “I have attempted to capture all of the documents that have been shared in this email, as well as cut and paste our email correspondence here so that the conversation is in one easily captured area.”

The correspondence shows that school system and county staff had been discussing the HVAC upgrades since before March 27.

On that date, Oconee County Administrator Justin Kirouac wrote to School Superintendent Branch and asked to speak on the telephone.

Kirouac said that County Finance Director Wes Geddings earlier had spoken with School System Chief Financial Officer Saranna Charping “about the Civic Center project and the 50% split on the HVAC element in preparation for the FY21 Budget.”

Telephone Exchange

According to the email messages, Branch and Kirouac did speak on March 27.

Subsequently Kirouac sent Branch copies of the request for proposals for the renovation and the bid sheets received in response.

On April 3, at the end of the summary of the exchange, Branch wrote to Kirouac.

“My Operation staff reviewed all of the information provided this week and at this point in the process does not have any further questions regarding the RFP or bid proposal,” Branch wrote.

“Please let me know when the BOC takes action on this item and we will update the BOE as appropriate,” Branch said.

BOC Action

At its meeting on April 7, the Board of Commissioners awarded a $1,173,838 bid to Garland Construction Company of Bogart for design and construction services for renovation of and for an upgrade for HVAC at the Civic Center at 2661 Hog Mountain Road.

Included was $199,350 for the HVAC replacement.

“Because of the unusually large amount relative to normal maintenance years, we informed BOE that this project would occur over the summer,” Kirouac told me in an email message on April 14.

Kirouac said the invoices will be “exchanged” in May or June of this year “for reconciliation” but he wanted the School System to know of the cost in advance so it would be able to incorporate the expense in its Fiscal Year 2021 Budget, which takes effect on July 1.

Kirouac noted that the initial cost submitted by the contractor was just over $400,000 but was reduced to the $199,350 via negotiation.

The actual figure in the bid documents from Garland was $407,700.

The renovation includes electrical work in the banquet hall, a new fire alarm system for the Center, plumbing and flooring replacement and painting, work on the dressing rooms for the theater, improvements to the theater seating, and new landscaping for the building.

Civic Center History

The Oconee Board of Education and the Oconee County Board of Commissioners entered into an Intergovernmental Agreement on Nov. 3, 1992, to build the Civic Center.

According to that agreement, “after investigation of the matter by both the COUNTY and BOARD OF EDUCATION, it is agreed that the COUNTY, as well as the BOARD OF EDUCATION, need an auditorium and exhibit-banquet hall facility for meetings, exhibits, recreation activities and cultural affairs including plays, concerns, speech and other performances.”

The Board of Education had transferred to the county 3.6 acres from the larger 84-acre tract the Board of Education owned and on which Oconee County High School recently had been constructed.

The County, using money from a recently approved Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, agreed to construct the Civic Center building after the county and the Board of Education had agreed on an architectural firm that had submitted design plans.

Scheduling priority was given to school functions scheduled more than 90 days in advance, followed by county functions and other school functions, and then functions of the general public.

The county agreed to cover the costs of managing the facility. Revenue from use of the facility by outside groups would go toward management and operational expenses of the facility.

Maintenance costs not covered by revenue were to be split between the two parties equally.

The County is covering the costs of the now planned Civic Center renovation with SPLOST funds, except that the cost of the HVAC replacement is being labeled as maintenance.

Under the terms of the Intergovermental Agreement, the county is asking the Board of Education to cover half of those maintenance costs.

Odom’s Comment

Toole didn’t mention the cost of the HVAC in his report to the Board, saying simply that the “Operations Department has reviewed the RFP for the Civic Center renovation.”

Screen Shot During Civic Center Discussion

In response to Odom, Toole said he and his staff looked at the “HVAC renovation” and the entire Request for Proposals, but focused on the “HVAC renovation piece of it.”

“It’s not your run of the mill maintenance item, in my opinion,” Odom said.

“How did you come about to know what the cost was going to be?” Odom asked. “Has there been any ongoing discussion?”

“No sir, we haven’t had any discussion with the county as far as the RFP went,” Toole said, “other than reading it ourselves.”

“I think maybe our two staffs need to get together or something and facilitate with the county staff,” Odom said.

Odom said the school system should have had some input on the RFP. “I think we need to focus on a process here,” he said.

“I think maybe Dr. Branch can facilitate the two staffs getting together to talk about this a little bit,” Odom said. “I think it would be beneficial for both government parties.”

Burgess’s Comment

Burgess asked Toole if he had seen or participated in the writing of the RFP, and Toole said he had not.

Toole, in response to a follow-up question from Burgess, said he reviewed the bid four days before the bid was awarded.

Branch broke into the exchange and said he had spoken with Kirouac, had received the documents, and had reviewed them.

“But that review, Jason, was after the RFP was out and after the bids had been received but before an award was made by the county?” Burgess asked.

Branch said that was correct.

“They were making the decision on the work to be done and the contractor to do it without any real coordination or participation with us other than overlooking the documents once they were prepared?” Burgess asked.

“I believe that would be a fair assessment, yes,” Branch replied.

Burgess Makes Link

“We have a long-standing agreement with the Board of Commissioners to share responsibility for the upkeep of that facility,” Burgess said.

“But it also requires or and envisions a good deal of coordination and participation by both members,” Burgess said, “since they’re both, since both bodies are financially in the responsibility chain for paying those things and it just appears to me that yet again we see an instance where there was no coordination, there was no cooperation.

“The decisions were moved on by the Board of Commissioners,” Burgess said, “and now they’ve come back around and said ‘Oh, and by the way, the Board of Education needs to pay for a component of this.’

“And I just think that’s yet again an example of a poor level of cooperation that should be improved,” Burgess said.

Burgess and Odom were lead critics when the Board of Commissioners tried to build roundabouts at the entrances to Malcom Bridge Middle School on Malcom Bridge Road last year.

The county ultimately had to alter those plans, which Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell has said were to accommodate future traffic and the desire to get officers out of the roadway at the entrances, because of lack of cooperation by the Board of Education.


The video below is on the Oconee County Schools YouTube site and was recorded by Oconee County Schools

Buck began her teaching and learning report at 6:24 in the video.

Toole made his report at 31:19 in the video.

Odom followed, and Burgess made his comments at 38:45.

The Board of Education also will live stream its regular meeting at 6 p.m. tomorrow (Monday) at this link.

1 comment:

Eric Gisler said...

While the BOC should have probably allowed the BOE to participate in the RFP, does the BOE really think they can get a better deal than $200k? How much of this is concern about lack of transparency (which I share concerns about) and how much is just continuing the feud between the two boards?

It is hard to tell and it is time for that to change.

Eric Gisler
Candidate for BOC Chair