The Oconee County Board of Education tightly controls public comment at its meetings.
Citizens are not given an opportunity to speak at work sessions.
Those who register in advance are given five minutes to speak to the Board at the end of the regular meetings in what is termed the Public Communication section. Those who don’t register in advance are given three minutes.
Generally, few use either opportunity.
An exception was the July 20 meeting at the beginning of the school year, when 19 people spoke about school policy surrounding the reopening of the schools.
But the Board has heard from only two other speakers–though one of those appeared three times–for the remainder of the year.
The January 11 regular sessions was something quite different.
Twenty-five individuals spoke in a meeting that ran for two hours and 45 minutes, with all but one of the speakers taking a stand for or against the school’s policy of recommending but not requiring masks in the schools.
That controversy over how the Board and school administration have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic puts a spotlight on both at a critical time.
On March 16 Oconee County voters will be asked to approve early renewal of the county’s one percent Education Local Option Sales Tax so the school system can begin borrowing immediately against that tax for a long list of capital projects.
The proposal for early renewal of the tax and immediate borrowing first came to the Board publicly at its Dec. 7 work session, when Chief Financial Officer Saranna Charping told the Board she would be asking approval of that course of action at the regular meeting on Dec. 14.
|Official Ballot Language|
At its regular meeting of on Dec. 14, the Board of Education passed a resolution calling for the election in which voters will be asked to approve the school system issuing up to $42,950,000 in general obligation bonds and collecting a 1 percent sales tax to pay for those bonds and school capital projects.
The Board did not raise any questions of Charping or Superintendent Jason Branch at either the Dec. 7 work session or the Dec. 14 regular meeting and engaged in no discussion of the proposal.
The sales tax is being presented as a continuation of the existing 1 percent tax, which took effect on Jan. 1 of 2018 and is set to expire on Dec. 31 of 2022.
By law, the taxes are separate. Each Education Local Option Sales Tax is for a specific set of capital projects and must be approved by the voters based on the list of capital expenditures presented to the voters. Without approval, the tax expires.
The new tax is set to run for five years, beginning in Jan. 1 of 2023, and to collect a maximum of $48,500,000.
The resolution states that the Board is authorized to pay interest on the bonds starting in Sept. 1, 2021, or before the tax even goes into effect, and, and sets up a schedule for payment of principal beginning in March 1, 2024, or about a year after the tax goes into effect
The referendum language contains a very long and complex paragraph stating how the money will be used.
Included are new schools and administrative buildings, additions and repair to existing facilities, including athletic facilities, buses, technology, and property for future school or administrative sites.
The language on the ballot will govern what the Board can do with money collected from the tax, if voters pass the referendum.
After the Board of Education approved the resolution, it went to the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration, which approved the resolution at its Jan. 12 meeting.
Early voting on the tax referendum begins on Feb. 22 and will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through March 12 at the Civic Center. No voting will take place on Saturdays or Sundays.
Options for completing an absentee ballot request are on the web page of the Oconee County Board of Elections and Registration.
The deadline for voter registration is Feb. 15.
At the Board of Education work session on Monday, Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, made a presentation to the Board explaining the history Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST).
|School System Flier|
She also spelled out in more detail than the ballot language how the money from the tax will be used.
Included is construction the system’s third middle school at the Dove Creek campus in the far northwest of the county that now houses Dove Creek Elementary School.
It also will be used for classroom additions to Colham Ferry Elementary School, High Shoals Elementary School, and Malcom Bridge Elementary School, Jimenez said.
Also planned are renovations to Oconee County Primary School, Malcom Bridge Elementary School, Oconee County Elementary School, and Rocky Branch Elementary School, she said.
Instructional Center, Project Timing
The money will be used to construct an instructional support center, she said, though she didn’t say what they would consistent of or where it would be located.
Those activities now are spread around offices on 1.4 acres at the end of School Street in Watkinsville.
In 2009, the Board purchased for $900,000 6.8 acres from Charles and David Williams on North Main Street just beyond that road’s intersection with Experiment Station Road, but it has not used the property.
The language of the ELOST resolution allows the Board to purchase additional property.
Money also would be used for buses and technology, Jimenez said.
Jimenez said the plan is to sell the bonds and begin the project immediately to take advantage of “historically low interest rates” and avoid cost increases due to inflation.
There was no discussion by Board members following Jimenez’s presentation other than the standard comment by Vice Chair Kim Argo, who was running the meeting, that people from outside the county pay the ELOST tax when they shop in Oconee County and thus bear some of the tax burden.
The current ELOST is the fifth approved by Oconee County voters.
The referendum approving the current tax was on the ballot in the general election of Nov.8, 2016, when 20,458 voters cast a ballot, and 70.2 percent of the voters were in favor of the tax.
That referendum is capped at $45 million and expires as soon as that amount is collected, but the cap is was set higher than the actual expected revenue so the tax can run the full period.
The actual expected revenue is just under $40 million, according to financial documents recently submitted to the Board.
The vote of the previous referendum was in the off-year of November of 2011, and 71.4 percent of the 2,305 voters who went to the polls voted in favor.
Turnout on March 16 also is likely to be very low, as nothing else is on the ballot across the county. Voters in the Oconee County section of Bogart, which cuts across county lines, also will be filling a seat on its Council.
Importance Of Teachers, School Staff
Generally, a campaign for an election of this sort is quite limited, with the schools able to motivate teachers and school staff and their families to vote.
School officials actually are not allowed to campaign for the tax, but they can provide “information.”
Jimenez acknowledged the importance of teachers and staff in her comments to the Board on Monday.
“Here is a time line of communications,” Jimenez said. “Tonight you all are being presented.
“We’ll also be presenting information to schools, and they will be able to share information out as well,” she continued.
“This week we will also post this information as well as our ELOST flier on the web site at oconeeschools.org/elost.
“And then we’ll also be providing some social media posts leading up to the actual date that ELOST will go up for a vote,” she said. “That date is March 16.”
Only about 40 percent of the households in Oconee County have students enrolled in the county’s school system, so many voters are likely to be missed by internal communication efforts.
January 11 Meeting And Masks
No one speaking at the Jan. 11 meeting made any reference to the ELOST vote, and there is no evidence the either the critics or supporters of the school system and the Board are thinking about it.
|Ivy Campbell Opposes Mask Mandate|
The concern that 24 of the 25 speakers addressed was with masks, with those in favor wearing them while those opposed were not, even though all of the Board members and staff present were masked, consistent with school policy of recommending masks.
Four of the five speakers who registered in advance criticized the schools for not mandating a mask policy, while 15 of the 20 who spoke for three minutes favored the policy of recommending but not requiring masks.
One of the three-minute speakers spoke about policy, but did not mention masks specifically.
A consistent comment was that the mask policy had become very controversial in the schools and the community.
Andrea Wellnitz, one of the scheduled speakers and someone who has spoken to the Board with regularity, said she was speaking on behalf of educators who “brought home to their families the gift of COVID.”
|George McMahon Favors Mask Mandate|
She also commented on the system’s weekly reports on active cases and quarantines and said “teachers have expressed concern that this does not match what they are experiencing” in the classroom.
Jenny Smith, who also registered in advance and was allotted five minutes to speak, said “we are so happy with what you have done. We appreciate that the School Board has chosen to allow parents to decide whether or not their child should wear a mask, and we’d like it to stay that way.”
Chastity Cunningham, among those who had not registered in advance, said “Our kids are safe. If a mandate is required, then what’s next? It goes to bullying, is what it boils down to. Bullying us to wear a mask. Bullying them not to wear a mask. It’s bullying all the way around. And it shouldn’t be done.”
Chris Nelson said it was a “constitutional right” not to wear a mask.
George McMahon said he was pleased with the mask policy initially but his sons report that mask wearing in the schools “has steadily declined.”
McMahon said his sons are not concerned about their own health but about bringing COVID-19 home to him, a kidney transplant recipient. “They live with that fear and that guilt,” he said.
“What we know now is that a mask mandate will help our students and our families stay safe,” McMahon said. “Even if that is an unpopular decision, that is what leadership is.”
Board policy requires speakers to give their addresses before they speak, and those are recorded (with one exception) in the official minutes of the Jan. 11 Board meeting.
When the speakers had finished, Tom Odom, Board chair, who was presiding remotely, said “Thank you to all for speaking” before turning quickly to Board action items, including selection of Kim Argo to continue serving as vice chair.
After taking care of those items, Odom asked if any of the Board members wished to speak before going into executive session.
Member Amy Parrish raised her hand, saying she wanted to ask Dallas LeDuff, director of student services, to tell her what other schools were doing “in term of digital, in-person learning, and mask mandates.”
LeDuff said he could identify nine schools systems in the region “implementing similar measures as we are, and five that are not." None of the nine have a mask mandate, he told Parrish.
Comments on Petition
Parrish then switched topics.
“I know we all saw this petition,” she said. “Can you comment on who are on those signatures and how they related to Oconee County Schools.”
Parris did not explain the content of the petition, which opposes current school policy.
|Parrish Signals Intent To Ask Questions|
“I can address that, Board members,” Superintendent Branch said. “Any time we get a petition, we obviously want to know the signatures and stakeholders that are on that.”
“On our last review, which started on Friday afternoon, 2,766 total signatures” were on the petition, he said.
Of those, 356 were parents, 428 were students, 1,982 “were others that were neither parents nor students.”
Of the students, Branch said, 212 were from North Oconee High School, 153 were from Oconee County High School, 28 were from Oconee Middle School, 15 were from Malcom Bridge Middle, two were from Colham Ferry Elementary School, and one was from Rocky Branch Elementary School. (The student numbers only total to 411).
“Is that is?” Odom asked when Branch finished. “OK. Thank you for extending the meeting, Ms. Parris,” he said sarcastically.
Others Board members laughed at Odom’s response.
The petition was not presented by any of those who spoke, and I asked director of Communications Jimenez for a copy of the language of the petition.
She directed me to this web site and said it had been submitted to schools under the name "John Doe." John Doe is listed on the site as organizer.
The petition asks “the Oconee County Board of Education to put in place the simple measures required to slow the spread of COVID-19. The first of these measures is a hybrid approach to schooling...Secondly, we simply ask for the district to put in place a non-negotiable mask required policy.”
No one has come forward to identify himself or herself as John Doe, Jimenez said.
As of this posting, 3,128 are reported as having signed the petition.
The next regular meeting of the Board of Education is Monday, and that meeting is likely to give some sense of whether the Jan. 11 meeting was the beginning of a new level of citizen participation or simply an exception.
It also will give a sense of whether the campaign for the ELOST referendum, now that it is officially launched, becomes connected in any way with the concerns parents are raising about what the official minutes from Jan. 11 called “COVID-19 processes, protocols, learning models, and hybrid schedules.”
The four videos below are of the Feb. 1 work session, the Jan. 11 regular meeting, and the Dec. 14 regular meeting, and the Dec. 7 work session, in that order.
Jimenez began speaking about the ELOST campaign at 19:09 in the Feb. 1 video.
Citizens began speaking after Board Chair Tom Odom explained the procedures at 1:20:06 in the Jan. 11 video.
Parrish made her comments at 2:38:10 in the video.
Vote on the ELOST resolution is at 31:49 in the Dec. 14 video.
Charping introduced the resolution to the Board at 46:24 in the Dec. 7 video.
Because I am immunocompromised, I do not attend public meetings.
Julie Fechter, reporter for The Oconee Enterprise, does attend and recorded all four of the videos below, using my equipment.
The Board does not live stream its meetings and does not record them, and Fechter and I agreed on this partnership to create that record. (Note: The Board began recording its meetings on Feb. 1. They are available at oconeeschools.org/BOEvideos.)
All Board of Education meetings are stored on a channel on my Vimeo Site and are available for public viewing.
It is possible to follow the site to know when any new video has been uploaded.
The video of the Feb. 1 meeting is very dark because the lights in the room were dimmed almost throughout.