Friday, May 28, 2021

Oconee County School Board Approves Fiscal Year 2022 Budget After Rare Public Disagreement--Over Salaries

***Board Does Not Respond To Questions At Hearing***

The Oconee County Board of Education is scheduled to hold is second and final public hearing on June 7 on its proposed $86.7 million Fiscal Year 2022 budget that leaves unchanged the existing property tax millage rate and increases spending per student by $333.

The budget includes a $1,250 one-time bonus paid to each of the system’s more than 1,000 employees plus an additional increase of $1 per hour for custodial staff, bus drivers, and school nutrition workers.

The bonus and hourly salary increase were not part of the budget submitted to the Board by Superintendent Jason Branch on May 3 but were added by the Board at its meeting on May 10.

In a very rare display of disagreement at the May 10 meeting, the Board voted down a proposal by member Kim Argo to make the across-the-board salary increase permanent and passed her proposal to increase the hourly wages of bus drivers, custodians, and school cafeteria workers in a split vote.

The budget goes before the Board for final vote on June 14, following the second public hearing at 5:30 p.m. on June 7 at the Board Meeting Room at the Superintendent’s Office, 34 School Street in Watkinsville.

At the first public hearing on the budget on May 18, John Phillips asked a series of questions about the budget, but the Board did not respond to any of them.

Budget Details

The budget approved by the Board on May 10 is labeled as tentative pending final projections on the county tax base and on state funding.

Budget Discussions 5/10/2021

The budget projects $40.2 in property and ad valorem taxes, up from $37.2 in the current Fiscal Year 2021 budget, which expires on June 30.

Total local funding, including other local taxes, such as real estate transfer taxes, is $42.3 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, compared with $39.4 for Fiscal Year 2021.

The budget lists $44.1 million in total state funding, up from $40.4 million in the current fiscal year.

In the proposed budget, state funding makes up 51.0 percent of the total revenue. In the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, they are 50.6 percent.

The state cut education funding at the beginning of the pandemic and has not yet fully restored it.

The Fiscal Year 2020 Budget included $44.5 million in state funding, or 55.0 percent of the total revenue.

Saranna Charping, chief financial officer for Oconee County Schools, told the Board at its May 3 meeting that the revenue in the proposed budget from the state Quality Basic Education Funds represented a $2 million cut in revenue.

Questions About Revenue

The questions that Phillips asked of the Board at the first public hearing on May 18 had to do with sources of revenue, and specifically with federal relief funding following the pandemic.

“I’m looking at Tentative Budget General Fund as presented,” Phillips said, referring to the public document Oconee County Schools has released to the public.

“Is this the entirety of funds related to the operation of the schools and the School District?” Phillips asked.

“This a period where you make comments,” Board Chair Tom Odom said. “I’m not going to be answering any questions.”

“So the expectation is that you won’t answer any questions at this meeting?” Phillips asked.

“I have to digest the questions first,” Odom responded.

Phillips said he would continue to ask his questions.

Looking For Federal Funds

“So where in this proposed budget is the proposed American Rescue Plan funding reported?” Phillips asked.

Phillips said that, according to the Georgia Department of Education, Oconee County Schools has been allocated $3.34 million “and you should have received two-thirds of that by now.

“And that’s a big number,” he continued. “And I don’t see it anywhere reflected in this budget. It would be hard to miss.”

Phillips wanted to know if Oconee County Schools intended to apply for the remaining one-third of the allocated funding, saying that the application deadline is July 9.

Phillips also wanted to know how the funding received by Oconee County Schools from the Caronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Acts I and II had been reported to the public.

He was given an extra 30 seconds beyond his three minute allocation to ask his questions.

No Response

I did not attend the public hearing on May 18, and it was not video recorded by Oconee County Schools.

The minutes of the session on the system web site merely report that Phillips “asked questions regarding the budget.”

No one else spoke at the meeting.

Phillips made an audio recording of his comments and provided it to me. I overlaid a still image from a part of the meeting Phillips did video record and embedded it here.

Phillips began asking his questions at 2:50 in the audio clip.

Phillips told me in an email message late on Thursday that he has not heard from anyone on the Board or at the schools regarding his questions.

Proposed Expenditures Initial Budget

The budget that Chief Financial Officer Charping presented to the Board on May 3 showed $85.0 million in expenditures.

Included were $61.4 million labeled “Instruction,” $6.4 million for “Maintenance And Operations,” $5.7 million for “School Administration,” and $4.1 million for “Student Transportation.”

The $85.0 million was up from $83.7 million in the current fiscal year.

Expenditure is $10,349 per each of the projected 8,376 students in the system.

The millage rate is to be unchanged at 16.5.

The budget showed revenue exceeded expenditures by an exact $1.4 million.

May 3 Meeting

Charping told the Board on May 3 that “If there are any adjustments that the Board desires I’ll work with the superintendent to make these adjustments.”

“We certainly do want to recognize that our teachers and staff have had a very difficult year,” Board Member Kim Argo said. “I don’t know if any of you all want to discuss that but I think that is something we should consider.”

Board Chair Tom Odom agreed, and he proposed a one-time bonus.

“I personally as a retired educator would like to see a 2 percent raise,” Argo responded. “And the reason I say that is when you do get ready to retire, if our employees got a 2 percent increase that would help their retirement where a one-time bonus would not be reflected when they go to retire.”

Board members Tim Burgess and Amy Parrish lined up behind Odom.

Board Member Michael Ransom seemed to be leaning toward Argo’s position.

Cost Of Raise

“If we had a 2 percent increase, do you think we can afford it,” Argo asked Charping.

“Under the current circumstances, I do,” she responded. “If the Board desires they want to give a 2 percent increase, under the circumstances we have now, I do think that would be fine.”

A 1 percent raise would cost $700,000, she said, so a 2 percent raise would cost $1.4 million.

“We’ll just look for further direction from you” Superintendent Branch said. “If there are changes that the Board wants us to make between this week and next week in terms of passing the tentative budget, you’ve got to just communicate that to us.”

First Motion On May 10

After Charping gave a brief report on the budget at the May 10 meeting, Branch recommended that the budget as presented on May 3 be approved.

Budget Discussions 5/3/2021

Argo then made a motion to amend the budget to include a 2 percent increase for all of the 1,046 full-time and 123 part-time staff. Ransom seconded the motion.

Burgess, recognizing that he had the votes, said “I’m also going to offer a motion here after we address this motion to deal with a different way to maybe approach the salary component of this.”

Burgess said he was against the motion because the budget includes a “$2 million cut from the state in this budget that starts in the new fiscal year” and because“the state did not propose nor did they provide any financial resources for a permanent pay raise.”

As a result, Burgess said, any permanent increase in the salary would have to be funded through local revenues entirely and in perpetuity. 

Only Argo and Ransom voted for the motion.

Second Motion

Burgess then made a motion that the proposed budget be amended to include a $1,250 one-time retention supplement for all employees and staff. The motion was seconded by Parrish.

That motion passed, with only Ransom voting in the negative.

“Wait, I’m not through,” Argo said after the vote. “I’m still trying. I would like to amend the FY 22 budget to include a $1 raise for our custodians, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers.”

Ransom seconded the motion.

“I’ll make one point,” Burgess said. “It’s been my experience that when we address permanent pay increases for the types of employees that Ms. Argo is talking about, we generally have a lot of conversation and a lot of analysis that discusses job retention, competitiveness, and other issues that may put us in a position where we ought to be.”

“At this time I don’t think we are as competitive with surrounding counties as we should be,” Argo countered. “From what I understand we may be two or three dollars below what some of the other counties offer.

Consequences Of Abstention

Again, Burgess anticipated the outcome and asked Branch what would happen if he abstained.

Branch told Burgess the motion would pass if it got three votes of support.

Odom voted against the motion, but Parrish joined Argo and Ransom in voting for the motion.

Burgess abstained.

Odom said he would like to see a salary study for custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers.

Branch said such a study would be presented at the June 7 meeting of the Board.

News Release

Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, issued a news release on May 11 touting the salary increases.

“The Board’s desire is always to prioritize staff in the budget,” she quoted Odom as saying. “After the exceptional job of our school system during this unprecedented year, the need to recognize our people is more important than ever.”

The news release states the “one-time $1,250 retention supplement for all staff” will cost $1.4 million.

The $1 per hour increase for bus drivers, custodians, and school nutrition staff will cost $250,000.

(Jimenez said in an email message on the morning of May 28 that "approximately 1,100 employees will receive the one-time retention bonus and approximately 200 employees will receive the $1 per hour salary improvement.")

The final budget expenditures increased from the $85.0 million in the budget submitted to the Board on May 3 to $86.7 in the version passed on May 10 and now the subject of the public hearings.

Rather than a surplus of $1.4 million, the passed budget is $250,301 in the red.

That amount will come from the fund balance, which was projected to be $29.9 million at the end of the Fiscal Year 2022 budget in the initial budget and now is projected to be $28.3 million.


The videos below are of the May 3 and May 10 meeting of the Board of Education.

Charping began her report on the budget at 30:29 in the May 3 video.

Charping began discussion of the budget at 17:19 in the May 10 video.

Julia Fechter of The Oconee Enterprise recorded the two videos.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Interesting that this school board cannot answer questions. The questions are reasonable for a taxpayer to ask, after all it is our money, whether federal or local. I can understand that they may need to look into the question, but after time to do that, an answer should be given. But, since we reelect them easily each time, I guess they figure they can do what they want. I am glad they are at least having some discussion on substantive issues.

Jeanne Barsanti