It seems unlikely Oconee County voters in 1964 gave much thought to the provision of a Constitutional amendment they approved that the current Board of Education relied on earlier this month to fill vacancies on the Board without seeking citizen input.
Prior to the vote in 1964, members of the county’s Board of Education were appointed by the county Grand Jury.
Citizens in 1964 overwhelmingly approved a referendum on the ballot that gave them the right to elect a five-member Board to oversee operation of the county’s schools.
If citizens in 1964 had read the fine print of the legal advertisement in the county legal organ, The Oconee Enterprise, they would have seen that tucked into the resolution that authorized the referendum on electing the School Board was the provision that the Board could fill any vacancies without an election.
On Sept. 2 the current Board cited this 1964 resolution as authority to replace Board Chair Tom Odom, who stepped down in Sept. 1 with three years and four months remaining on his term, with Vice-Chair Kim Argo.
The Board, again citing this bill, replaced Argo with former Board Member Wayne Bagley, without even asking for citizen nominations, as has been the practice in the past.
Changing the law likely would require a vote to repeal the provision of the local Constitutional amendment regarding filling vacancies on the Board. The provision that all Board members be elected is now part of the state Constitution.
Record Of Vote
Jennifer Stone, assistant director of Elections and Registration for Oconee County, told me her office has no records of elections as far back as 1964.
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The Secretary of State Office also has no record of what took place in Oconee County in that election, Stone confirmed.
John Prechtel, librarian at the University of Georgia who specializes in governmental records, told me “I am unaware of any websites, books, databases, or other resources providing the results of historical local elections (referenda and local offices) in Georgia.”
Prechtel directed me to the Enterprise as the only available record.
I discussed what I had learned with John Phillips, a rural sociologist who has been active in local school issues.
Phillips decided to go through the copies of the Enterprise stored in with Clerk of Courts Angela Elder-Johnson in the Oconee County Courthouse and to share what he learned with me.
What The Newspaper Shows
The October 21, 1964, edition of the Enterprise contains a notice in the legal advertisements of Resolution Act 135, House Resolution 379-840, passed by the General Assembly. It does not state when the resolution was passed.
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This is the same resolution provided by Oconee County Schools as justification for its action on Sept. 2 replacing Odom with Argo and replacing Argo with Bagley.
The document released by Oconee County Schools only says it was passed in the 1964 session of the General Assembly.
The resolution proposes an amendment to the Georgia Constitution creating a Board of Education of Oconee County consisting of five members, elected “by voters of the entire county.”
It also states, tucked into the bill, that “Any vacancy occurring in the membership of the Board of Education of Oconee County, for any cause whatsoever, shall be filled by the majority vote of the remaining members of the Board of Education.”
The resolution states that, once passed by the General Assembly, voters in Oconee County, must vote on the change to the Constitution.
The specified language for the ballot only says voters are to be asked to vote for or against “election of members of the Board of Education of Oconee County by the people.”
The existing procedure was for the Board to be appointed by a Grand Jury of the county.
On the same day as the legal advertisement appeared, a “Group Of Interested Oconee Citizens” ran a small advertisement on Page 7 of the Enterprise urging citizens to “go to the polls” on Nov. 3 “and vote to elect your School Board.”
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The advertisement says that “As citizens of Oconee County, we believe in electing the board members since all other offices of the county are filled by elected members.
“We feel the members of the Board of Education hold a responsible position as the ruling body of our local school system, and should be elected by the citizens,” the advertisement states.
Phillips found no other indication of citizen comment on the ballot issue.
The local legislators likely were responding to citizen requests when they passed the resolution in Atlanta, but there is no record of that in the paper.
The Oct. 28 edition of the paper contained the sample ballot for the Nov. 3 election, with the language specified in the resolution. It was one of 16 proposed amendments on the ballot, two of which were specific to Oconee County.
No reference is made in any of these documents to the way that the Board would fill vacancies.
On election day, “approximately 2,350" voters cast a ballot in Oconee County, according to the Nov. 4, 1964, issue of the Enterprise.
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Only 1,348 voted for the Constitutional Amendment dealing with the election of the School Board, but 84.7 percent of those who did voted for approval.
The election was a turning point in Oconee County, with Barry Goldwater getting 53.6 percent of the vote.
In 1960, by contrast, 80.4 percent of Oconee County voters had cast a ballot for Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
In 1968, Democrat Hubert Humphrey got only 16.4 percent of the vote, and American Independent Party Candidate George Wallace got 55.5 percent of the vote.
In that 1964 vote in Oconee County, Democrat Paul Broun got 56.3 percent of the vote in the state Senate race.
Election Of Superintendent
In 1964, the Superintendent of Oconee County Schools was elected, and the county tried in 1976, 1987, and 1991 to move to a superintendent appointed by the Board of Education.
Each time that failed.
In 1992, voters across the state ratified an amendment to the Georgia Constitution that stated that “local school superintendents be appointed by an elected board of education.”
I have found no record of the vote in Oconee County on that amendment.
If Oconee County voters had not approved the amendment back in 1964, the Oconee County Board of Education now would have to follow the provisions of the State Constitution.
Vacancies would be filled by special election unless they occurred less than 90 days before the term expired. In the latter case, the Board would name a replacement.
But the constitution allows for an exception where local laws applicable to local boards of education “provide otherwise.”
I exchanged email with County Attorney Daniel Haygood last week to understand how the Georgia Constitution might be changed to eliminate the exception for Oconee County.
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Haygood directed me to the Legislative Counsel of the Georgia General Assembly.
I spoke with Jenna Dolde, deputy Legislative Counsel, last Friday.
She was cautious because she did not know the specifics of the 1964 change to the Constitutional for Oconee County.
“It sounds like, based on what you’re giving me, it was a local Constitutional amendment passed long ago,” she said. “We don’t do those anymore for obvious reasons. They just cause too many problems to locally change the Constitution.”
The local Constitutional amendments were only approved by the “localities,” she said.
Those amendments must be repealed, she said, again via a vote of the local citizens.
To get an election on repeal of the 1964 amendment to the Constitution on the ballot, the local legislative delegation would have to pass a law in the General Assembly to call an election.
Citizens then could decide to repeal the amendment passed in 1964 or leave it unchanged.
If the amendment were repealed, the provisions of the Constitution for replacement of board member–by a special election–would take effect.
Odom resigned after having been elected to a four-year term in Post 1 in November of 2020. The term began on Jan. 1 of this year. Post 1 is designated as Board Chair.
Argo, who would have been up for election in 2022, now is filling out Odom’s Post 1 term and will not face voters until 2024.
Under the state Constitution, the Board would have had to call a special election to fill Odom’s term in November of 2022. It could have replaced Odom without an election until next November of next year.
Bagley will join Board Member Amy Parrish on the ballot in 2022, if they decide to seek another term.