Saturday, August 21, 2021

Oconee County Schools Embarking On $54.6 Million In Construction Projects Following Tax Referendum

***Time Line Differs From Presentation To Voters***

Oconee County Schools has embarked on $54.6 million in construction projects since the passage of the Education Local Option Sales Tax referendum by voters in March.

Included is a $3.4 million addition to Colham Ferry Elementary School that already is underway.

Oconee County Schools also has issued a request for proposals for a $3.1 million addition to High Shoals Elementary School.

Next in line is construction of a new middle school at the site of the Dove Creek Elementary School. The cost of that project is set at $36.6 million

The fourth project is an $8.3 million New Instruction Support Center–or administrative building.

The final project is a classroom addition to Malcom Bridge Elementary School at a cost of $3.2 million.

These cost estimates come from a document released by the schools as the result of an open records request. Oconee County Schools refused to release cost estimates in advance of the March referendum.

The promotional materials used in advance of that vote listed these five construction projects, four renovation projects, and two other areas of spending. The Instructional Support Center was at the bottom of the construction list shown to voters–below the renovation projects.

The total cost estimate of $54.6 million for these five projects alone exceeds the collection cap of $48.5 million for the tax.

Launch Of Campaign

Oconee County Schools published a list of projects to be funded by the Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) as part of the information campaign for the referendum.

That list started with the new Dove Creek Middle School and ended with Technology.

Project List For Voters

The list was a prominent feature on the school system website during the campaign and was used in communication within the schools before the vote.

Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, launched the campaign at the Feb. 1 Board of Education meeting with a discussion of that list.

“Here are some of the projects that would be possible if ELOST IV passes,” Jimenez said, referring to a list shown on the screen.

“First, construction of Dove Creek Middle School,” she said. “Then, classroom additions to Colham Ferry, High Shoals, and Malcom Bridge Elementary.

“Here are some more projects that would be possible if ELOST VI passes,” she continued, “renovation to Oconee County Primary School, Malcom Bridge Elementary School, Oconee County Elementary School, and Rocky Branch Elementary School.

“And here a few more projects that would be possible,” she added. “Construction of an Instructional Support Center.

“And for a bit of history, we’ve been in this Board office since circa 1980. And for the 40 years prior, the Board of Education operated in the basement of the Courthouse,” she explained.

“And also with ELOST VI we would be able to purchase more buses and then also to invest more in technology,” she said in concluding the discussion of the list.

Responses To Questions

On Feb. 5, I sent Superintendent Jason Branch an email message, copied to Board of Education Chair Tom Odom, asking for an opportunity to get additional information about the referendum.

Branch And Odom, 8/2/2021

“Thanks for your interest in ELOST VI,” Branch wrote back on Feb. 8. “Please send your questions to Anisa and we will work with staff to answer as appropriate.”

On Feb. 11, Jimenez responded.

I asked for a timeline for the projects on the list, and Jimenez said “The planned opening of Dove Creek Middle School is Fall 2023. Regarding the rest of the projects, the time line is not yet set.”

I asked for cost estimates for each of the projects, and Jimenez responded by saying “If ELOST VI passes, then we will put out a Request for Proposals (RFPs) on the projects in order to obtain firm estimates.”

I asked for plans for the Instructional Support Center, and Jimenez said “The Instructional Support Center would be located on North Main Street, on property currently owned by the school system. This building would include meeting space more appropriate for our growing school system and community.”

What Document Shows

I filed an open records request with Brook Whitmire, Chief Human Resources Officer and Open Records Officer for Oconee County Schools, on Aug. 16, asking him for “the list of projects created in advance of the ELOST VI referendum and to be funded by revenue from ELOST VI that contains the cost estimates of those projects.”

Pre-ELOST Internal Document
Project Costs, Time Line From Open Records Request

I also asked for the time lines.

On Aug. 19, Whitmire sent me a single sheet responsive to that request, which had asked for the pre-ELOST documents.

The released document–in the shape of an organizational chart–lists five of the projects on the list shown to voters in advance of the Education Local Option Sales Tax vote in March. The five were the new construction projects.

The first project on the sheet is the 10-classroom addition to Colham Ferry Elementary School, now underway, with a completion date of July of 2022 at a cost of $3.4 million.

The second item on the list is an eight-classroom addition to High Shoals Elementary School, also to be completed by July of 2022, at a cost of $3.1 million.

The third item is a “New Middle School #3" with a capacity of 1,000 students. Completion date is set for July of 2023 at a cost of $36.6 million.

The fourth item on the list is a 35,000-square-foot New Instructional Support Center at a cost of $8.3 million. Completion date is indicated as July of 2024.

The final item on the chart is a 12-classroom addition to Malcom Bridge Elementary School at a cost of $3.2 million. Completion date is set for July of 2025.

The four renovation projects listed ahead of the construction of the Instructional Support Center on the flier given to voters did not appear on the list released to me. The costs for buses and technology also were not on the list.

Funding For Projects

To begin paying for the construction projects on the list, Oconee County Schools sold $37.2 million in General Obligation Bonds following authorized by the Board of Education at a called meeting on May 18.

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.

Oconee County Schools will not begin collecting tax from the Education Local Option Sales Tax approved by voters in March until Jan. 1, 2023, and the existing ELOST V does not expire until the end of 2022.

Jimenez, in responding to my question on the timing of the election in February, said putting the issue on the ballot in March “would enable the school system, upon passage, to take advantage of historically low interest rates and avoid inflation costs.”

According to the Debt Service Schedule that is part of the resolution approved by the Board of Education, Oconee County Schools will begin interest payments on the bonds on Sept. 1 of this year and make its first payment against the principal on March 1, 2024.

The final payment is scheduled to be made on March 1 of 2033.

At that point, Oconee County Schools will have paid $12,530,159 in interest, bringing the total payment for the interest and principal to $49,730,159.

Oconee County Schools also will apply for state funding for the construction of the schools.

In the current ELOST, which covered construction of the Dove Creek Elementary School and classroom additions at Oconee County High School, the state contributed $5.6 million.

Colham Ferry Addition

When Branch asked the Board of Education to move forward with construction of the 10 classrooms at Colham Ferry Elementary School on June 7, none of the members expressed any surprise that this project preceded construction of the middle school.

Brock Toole, chief operations officer for the schools, 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 approved the referendum for the 1 percent sales tax.

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.”

“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. The chart Whitmire released lists the cost as $3.4 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.”

North High Shoals

The Board was equally accepting of the report by Fred Ricketson, director of facilities for Oconee County Schools, at its Aug. 2 meeting, that construction was about to start on the classroom additions at High Schools Elementary School.

Branch, Odom, Burgess,
Michael Ransom, Ricketson (L-R) 8/2/2021

That project is the third item on the list presented to voters.

“Out at High Shoals, you may have noticed or heard we've got some work going on out there,” he said. “We're actually working in the adjacent lot to the west of the school to prepare our play field and soccer field and track.”

The new classrooms will be on the existing play field, he said, so the plan is to construct a new play field to be used once construction starts.

“Based on the RFP for High Shoals, when would you hope or expect for that project to actually start construction and then what's the time line for full competition?” Board Member Burgess asked Ricketson.

Responses to the Request for Proposals are expected to be returned by Sept. 9, Ricketson said, “and once we go through Board approval it'll be late October before they get a notice to proceed.”

Construction should start by Nov.1, he said, and be completed by July of 2022, he said.

This second deviation from the original time line indicated by the sheet given voters and the Board's awareness and acceptance of it led me to file the open records request with Whitmire.

Requests of Jimenez

I sent Jimenez an email on Aug. 16 and informed her that I had filed the open records request and asked her if she would respond to two questions.

I asked why Oconee County Schools “is moving forward with the construction projects at Colham Ferry and High Shoals elementary schools before it moves forward with Dove Creek Middle School?”

I also asked “which project will follow High Shoals Elementary School on the list of projects?”

Also on Monday, I sent a separate email request to Liz Harlow, interim chief financial officer for Oconee County Schools, asking her to help me understand discrepancies in two financial reports that she and her predecessor had submitted to the Board.

On Tuesday, Jimenez sent out a news release about the performance of Oconee County Schools students on the state Milestones tests. After I received the release, I asked Jimenez if she had additional analyses of the data that she could share.

I did not received any answers from Harlow or Jimenez on these requests.

Complaint From Jimenez

Jimenez wrote me on Thursday and Friday.

“As you have publicly stated that you are ‘not part of the media but rather am an Oconee County citizen who uses social media,’ we are unable to continue to dedicate the amount of time you require for personal blog content,” she wrote on Thursday.

“As I have consistently stated, citizens are welcome to contact divisions,” Jimenez said on Friday. She clarified that she meant divisions or departments of OCS.

I could not get Jimenez to admit that, as a citizen of the county, I should be able to contact and get responses from division or department heads, given her statement about citizens. 

“You will need to go through the Open Records process for your personal blog content due to the frequency and volume with which you email the system (15 this week by my count),” she wrote.

That count included my follow-up messages when she and Harlow did not respond. I used different email addresses to make sure I was reaching them. It also included a back and forth with Jimenez about her decision not to answer my questions.

“If you are going to quote me, please ensure that you use my actual statements instead of rewording them,” she admonished.

I can and will continue to contact division or department heads, and I will indicate if they respond.

Instructional Support Center

On Dec. 29, 2009, the Board of Education purchased a 6.8 acre tract from David and Charles Williams on North Main Street just beyond that road’s intersection with Experiment Station Road for $900,000.

David Williams had been a member of the Board of Education, stepping down at the end of 2008.

No use has been made of the property by Oconee County Schools to this point.

The language of the ELOST resolution passed in March allows the Board to purchase additional property, but Jimenez said at the time of the election that there are no plans to purchase additional property and that the Instructional Support Center will be located on the property on North Main Street.

The activities to be moved to the new site now are spread around offices on 1.4 acres owned by Oconee County Schools at the end of School Street in Watkinsville.

The 2021 assessed value of the property on North Main Street is $752,195, according to Oconee County Tax Records.

Vote On Referendum

Oconee County Schools’ strategy of seeking early approval of the new Education Local Option Sales Tax in the low-key election on March 16 was successful, with 83.6 percent of the 1,924 voters who cast a ballot approving.

Turnout was the lowest ever for any of the six Education Local Option Sales Tax referendums going back to 1997 and involved the second smallest number of voters.

The 83.6 percent approval vote was 13.4 percentage points higher than the vote in 2016 for the current sales tax and was exceeded in support only by the first two votes on the 1 percent tax in 1997 and 2002.

No other county issue was on the ballot at the March election.


The video embedded below was recorded by Oconee County Schools of the Board of Education meeting of Aug. 2.

Ricketson made his report on High Shoals Elementary School at 9:16 in the video.


Gail said...

Thanks Lee for your continuing coverage of OCS. While you may not be an “official part of the media” as Mrs. Jimenez points out, I consider your reporting a valuable tool to aid public understanding of OCS’ activities. While it may not be convenient and even irritating to the organization to fulfill your requests, hopefully they could try to see your “blog” as a more constructive way to disseminate information then their less-than-transparent methods.

Lee Becker said...

I just received a comment from a person who used only a first name. I can click through on the Google ID and see a last name. I am asking that person to simply send a second comment with a first and last name added and I will publish both comments.
The only way I can reach anyone who comments on the blog is through this response.

Gail said...

Previous comment by myself, Gail Tarver.

Lee Becker said...

Thank you, Gail, for adding the last name.