Thursday, June 10, 2021

Oconee School Board Receives Bids For New Classrooms At Colham Ferry Elementary School, New Policies On Public Comment

***Also Reviews Impact Of Hourly Salary Increases***

The Oconee County Board of Education on Monday will be asked to award a $3.1 million contract for the 10-classroom addition to Colham Ferry Elementary School, the first expenditures from the Education Local Option Sales Tax approved by voters in March.

Construction is expected to begin in late summer and be complete for the next school year.

Brock Toole, chief operations officer for Oconee County Schools, presented the recommendation that the contract go to Amacher Bros. Construction Company of Atlanta at the School Board’s work session on Monday.

The Board also reviewed the impact of its decision last month to award a $1 salary increase for bus drivers, school nutrition workers, and maintenance workers.

A study of the salaries showed that Oconee County employees have been lagging behind employees of other area schools, as Board Member Kim Argo had contended when she championed the increase to her colleagues.

The Board also received a recommendation from the school administration that it change its policy for handling citizen comment, removing the requirement that speakers register in advance but shortening the amount of time allowed from five to three minutes.

The Board will be asked to approve that policy on Monday as well.

Colham Ferry

Toole told the Board that Oconee County Schools received seven bids in response to a requests for proposals issued on April 6, exactly three weeks after voters overwhelmingly approved the referendum for the 1 percent sales tax.

Toole Before Board 6/7/2021

Five of the seven bidders met a “minimum threshold for cost evaluation,” Toole told the Board, and Amacher Bros., the second lowest bidder, scored best on five “factors” used in the final evaluation.

Amacher built Dove Creek Elementary, the most recent new school construction project, Toole said.

Board Member Tim Burgess asked Toole if the bids were “pretty close to the range of what we--the estimates we were working from that you guys put together months and months ago?”

Toole said they were “a little higher due to the inflation, but it was close.”

Toole said the project will be funded by a combination of the Education Local Option Sales Tax and general funds.

Unexpected First Project

Prior to the passage of what the school calls ELOST VI in March, the only project on the list to be covered by passage of the tax with an announced time line was a new middle school at the Dove Creek campus in the far northwest of the county.

That school is expected to be open in the Fall of 2023.

“Regarding the rest of the projects, the time line is not yet set,” Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, said prior to the vote.

Classroom additions at Colham Ferry, High Shoals, and Malcom Bridge elementary schools were on the project list along with a list of other projects, including a new administrative building.

Jimenez also would not release any cost estimates for any of the projects before the vote, saying “If ELOST VI passes, then we will put out a Request for Proposals (RFPs) on the projects in order to obtain firm estimates.”

Jimenez was responding to questions submitted to Superintendent Jason Branch, who said she was answering for him.

Additional Board Questions

“When you bring this back next week for final approval, can you bring it back as a total project cost?” Burgess asked Toole.

Toole said the total cost will be $3.6 million.

“Also, could you kind of bring a blueprint or a diagram of where the new wing is going to be?” Board Member Argo said. “It's been a while.”

Toole said it will run parallel to the Kindergarten Hall, but he added “I’ll bring the schematic next week.”

Oconee County Schools submitted site development plans with schematics and an urban forestry plan for the Colham Ferry Elementary School to the Watkinsville City Council for review at its May 19 meeting. The school is within the boundaries of Watkinsville.

The plans submitted to the Council and displayed publicly at the May 19 meeting show a detached, one-building addition south of the existing buildings. The new building will be approximately 14,500 square feet in size.

Toole said at the Council meeting that construction will begin in late summer and be complete for the next school year.

The Watkinsville Council approved the site development plan and the urban forestry plan.

Other Schools On List

Colham Ferry Elementary School, built in 1960, is the oldest of the three elementary schools designated for new classrooms using ELOST VI, according to county tax records.

High Shoals Elementary School, according to the county tax records, was built in 2008, and Malcom Bridge Elementary School was built in 1995.

Colham Ferry Elementary also is operating closest to capacity among the three schools to get new classrooms.

Data provided me earlier by Jimenez, show that, as of March 9 of this year, Colham Ferry had 573 students enrolled and a capacity at the school of 600, while High Shoals had 520 students and a capacity of 650, and Malcom Bridge Elementary had an enrollment of 434 and a capacity of 600.

Those enrollment figures included students attending in-person and remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Middle School Comparisons

The decision to move forward first with construction of Colham Ferry Elementary School rather than the new middle school, was not mentioned at the School Board meeting on Monday.

Malcom Bridge Middle School, according to county tax records, was built in 1997, and the system’s only other middle school, Oconee County Middle School, was built initially in 1957, according to the county tax records.

The data released by Jimenez in March showed 1,023 students at Malcom Bridge Middle School with a capacity of 1,000, and 953 students at Oconee County Middle School, with a capacity of 1,000.

I asked Jimenez on June 4 “Where do things stand in terms of presenting to the county concept plans for the Dove Creek Middle School?”

She responded on June 7 that “There is not a firm timeline set.”

Guy Herring, director of Oconee County Planning and Code Enforcement, told me on June 8 that “We have not received anything on the DC Middle School nor have we had any discussions about a new middle school.” DC stands for Dove Creek.

The Dove Creek campus is in the unincorporated part of the county and its plans will go through the county planning process.

History Of Colham Ferry

The building that is now Colham Ferry Elementary was built in 1960, according to the county tax records.

At Colham Ferry Campus

A historic marker on the site of the school said it originally was called the E.D. Stroud School.

The school construction was an investment in segregated schools for African-American students “as part of Georgia’s massive resistance to federally mandated school integration,” according to the marker.

The new school replaced the Watkinsville Rosenwald School on the site and was named for Rosenwald School Principal Edwin David Stroud.

In 1969, as part of the county’s plans for integration, the school became the Oconee County Intermediate School.

It was renamed Colham Ferry Elementary School in 1996, according to the marker.

Bond Sales

Toole told the Board that the Colham Ferry project will be funded by ELOST VI, not the current ELOST V.

This is possible because, at a called meeting on May 18, the Board of Education authorized the sale of $37.2 million in General Obligation Bonds for capital projects approved by voters in the Education Local Option Sales Tax referendum on March 16.

In addition to approving the 1 percent Education Local Option Sales Tax on March 16, voters also authorized Oconee County Schools to issue up to $42,950,000 in General Obligation Bonds.

The $37.2 million in bonds that the Board authorized to be sold at its meeting on May 22 are to be dated for June 9, 2021, and to begin to bear interest from that date.

Oconee County Schools will not begin collecting tax from the Education Local Option Sales Tax approved by voters in March until Jan. 1, 2023.

The existing ELOST V does not expire until the end of 2022.

In the runup to the election, school officials said Oconee County Schools was seeking early approval of the tax to take advantage of a favorable bond market and to save money by beginning construction before costs increase due to inflation.

Interest Rate Question

Saranna Charping, chief financial officer for Oconee County Schools, told the Board at the meeting on May 18 that the “blended” rate for the bonds will be 1.22 percent.

Board Member Burgess asked for a breakdown of the “blended” rate.

“We’ll get that information and bring it back to you,” Superintendent Jason Branch told Burgess.

Jimenez told me in an email message on May 21 that “The information that the Board requested will be presented at the June Board meeting.”

Jimenez said she would not release that information prior to the June 7 meeting.

No mention of Burgess’ question on the bond rates was made at the meeting on Monday.

Salary Increases

At its May 10 meeting, the Board of Education instructed Charping to modify the proposed Fiscal Year 2022 Budget to include $1,250 one-time bonus paid to each of the system’s 1,100 employees.

At the urging of Board Member Argo, the Board also added an additional increase of $1 per hour for the 200 custodial staff, bus drivers, and school nutrition workers.

Argo argued that these employees were underpaid compared with comparable employees at school systems in the area.

Board Chair Tom Odom voted against Argo’s motion and 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.

Comparisons Offered

Charping presented school bus driver salary data from 10 surrounding school districts, showing that prior to the increase approved by the Board in May, Oconee County bus drivers with one year of experience ranked sixth, while those with 25 years of experience ranked ninth.

Charping Before Board 6/7/2921

With the increase, the Oconee County drivers with one year of experience ranked third, while the drivers with 25 years of experience ranked sixth.

Four of the school systems contract out for maintenance workers, but the salary increase approved by the Board left workers with 25 years of experience as the fifth rank among the seven systems compared.

Similarly, the salary increase for school nutrition workers moved those workers with 25 or more years of experience only up to rank nine from the previous rank 10.

The comparisons are based on the current pay scales, not what may be approved in the other districts for Fiscal Year 2022.

“The only reason I didn't vote for that was I thought we needed to look at the study,” Odom said after Charping gave her report. “Once I see the study, yeah, I would have voted for it.”

Another Vote

At the May 10 meeting, according to the minutes, “Chair Odom then called for a vote of the amended Tentative FY2022 Budget that reflected a $1,250 one-time retention supplement and a $1 per hour salary increase for custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers.”

The motion passed unanimously, according to the minutes.

Charping told the Board that the budget was advertised in <i>The Oconee Enterprise</I> on May 13, following its approval by the Board, and has been posted on the school system web site and that no changes have taken place since then.

The Board will have to revisit the budget again when the final tax digest is released by county Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle and the Board finalizes the millage rate.

The budget as drafted assumes a millage rate of 16.5, the same as at present.

Charping said the superintendent is asking for another vote on the same budget on Monday.

Prior to the regular meeting, the Board held its second public hearing on the budget. No citizen spoke, and the meeting lasted only a little more than two minutes.

Additional Funding For Staff

At the May 3 Board work session, Odom commented that "staff" had received $1,000 in CARES money even before the Board voted to add the $1,250 in supplement and the $1 for the salaried workers.

Odom stated this as a question, and Branch and Charping confirmed that this was true, but nothing more was said.

Jimenez told me in her email on June 7 that all employees in the school system received the $1,000 supplement in April and that the funding was from the state and from the federal government.

The state funds came in part from the governor’s officer and in part from CARES allocations to the state.

The direct federal funding, Jimenez said, was from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund II to address the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Georgia received $457.1 million in emergency ESSER I funding, another $1.8 billion as part of the ESSER II funding, and an additional $4.2 billion as part of the ESSER III funding.

Jimenez said that the $101,575 that the county allocated to Oconee County Schools from funding it received from CARES was used for Personal Protection Equipment and “other associated costs,” but not for the bonuses paid to staff.

Public Comment

Jimenez told the Board that Senate Bill 86, passed by the legislature in 2020 to go into effect on July 1 of this year, requires the Board to make some changes in its Board Policy Manual related to Public Participation in Board Meetings.

Jimenez Before Board 6/7/2021

The new law states that “A local board of education shall not require notice by an individual more than 24 hours prior to the meeting as a condition of addressing the local board during such public comment period.”

The existing policy of Oconee County Schools states that “Citizens desiring to address the Board of Education in a public meeting shall be placed on the agenda” provided they make that request of the superintendent five days in advance and “state the topic or issue to be addressed.”

These individuals are given five minutes to speak.

The existing policy states that the Chair then will recognize those who signed in before the meeting who wish to speak. They will be given three minutes.

Citizens are only able to speak at Regular meetings, not at Work Sessions.

Proposed Changes

The new policy that Jimenez brought to the Board states that “Although these meetings are not meetings of the public, the public is invited to attend all meetings and citizens are invited to address the Board at appropriate times and in accordance with procedures established by the Board or the Superintendent.”

“Citizens desiring to address the Board of Education at a regular meeting shall sign up in-person prior to the Board of Education regular meeting,” according to the policy.

“Citizens will register with their name, address, and topic. The sign-in sheet will be placed outside the Board Room one hour before the meeting and will be removed five minutes before the meeting,” according to the document.

Speakers will be allocated up to three minutes to address the Board.

“When a group wishes to address the board, it shall select a spokesperson to present its concerns to the board within the three-minute time limit,” according to the document.

“Speakers are asked to keep their remarks civil. Profane, rude, defamatory remarks and personal attacks will not be allowed,” according to the document.

The Board had no response to Jimenez’s proposal. It will be asked to adopt these changes at the meeting on Monday.


The video below is of the June 7 meeting of the Board of Education.

Included is the budget hearing, which preceded the work session of the Board.

Julia Fechter of The Oconee Enterprise recorded the meeting using my camera and tripod.

Oconee County Schools also records the meetings and uploads them to its YouTube Channel, but it did not record the budget hearing.

Toole began his report on operations at 26:05 in the video below and began the discussion of Colham Ferry Elementary School at 27:39.

Charping began her report to the Board at 54:30 in the video and turned to the salary comparisons at 56:17 in the video.

Jimenez began speaking at 1:02:52 in the video.


Jim Gaither said...

The history of Rosenwald Schools is fascinating.

Between 1917 and 1932 the Rosenwald Foundation, funded by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald in partnership with educator Booker T. Washington, built 5000 schools for black students across the rural south.

Lee Becker said...

Just a reminder. I ask that those submitting a comment use either a Google ID that includes the real name or "sign" the real name at the end of the comment.

Tim said...

The UGA Press has an excellent book, A Better Life for Their Children, that details the Rosenwald project. John Lewis wrote the forward for the book. It is a fascinating read and the. pictures are great as well. I highly recommend this book.

Tim Peacock