The Oconee County Board of Education has extended the term of Superintendent Jason Branch’s contract for another year until June 30, 2024.
The Board took this action after its executive session at the end of its open work meeting on Aug. 2.
Deliberations in executive session are private, and the Board reconvened and held an open meeting for only one minute to vote unanimously to approve the new contract, which has a start date of July 1, 2021.
The contract calls for payment to Branch of an annual salary of $234,000, the same amount as in the contract approved by the Board on April 13, 2020, effective July 1, 2020.
Branch began serving as Oconee County Schools superintendent in 2012, and he had received a salary increase every year since 2015, according to state salary records.
Branch received an 11.3 percent increase in that April 2020 contract.
Board Chair Kim Argo and Tom Odom, chair when the new contract was approved on Aug. 2, would not comment on the new contract.
Aug. 2 Meeting
The Board of Education met for 29 minutes in its regularly scheduled work session on Aug. 2 before voting to adjourn into executive session “to discuss or deliberate on personnel matters.”
Personnel is one of the topics the Board is allowed by state law to discuss with the public excluded, and the minutes of those discussions remained sealed.
The Board does not live stream its meeting, but it does record them. The recording for the Aug. 2 meeting ends with the vote to go into executive session.
According to the official minutes of that Aug. 2 meeting, the Board reconvened in open session at 7:25, or nearly an hour after going into executive session.
“The Board voted 5-0 to approve a contract of employment between Dr. Jason Branch and Oconee County Schools,” the written minutes read. “The contract extends the tenure of Dr. Branch until June 30, 2024.”
Kim Argo, then vice chair of the Board, made the motion to approve the contract, and Member Amy Parrish seconded. That Board unanimously approved the motion.
The Board voted to adjourn at 7:26 p.m., according to the minutes.
Copies Of Contracts
I asked, via an open records request on Aug. 23, for a copy of the approved contract, which is for the current Fiscal Year 2022, as well as the contract approved in April of 2021 for Fiscal Year 2021.
I received those documents on Aug. 26.
Both contracts state the Board “shall annually evaluate the performance of Superintendent, which evaluation shall be in writing.” That evaluation is to be completed “on or before May 30th of each year.”
The contract states that the Board and the Superintendent “shall meet in closed executive session to evaluate his performance,” that the Board must give a copy to the superintendent, and that the superintendent has a right to make a written reply.
I filed another request on Sept. 2 for the evaluations from this year and last and any response from Branch to those evaluations.
Response To Subsequent Request
“In accordance with Georgia law (O.C.G.A. § 20-2-210(a)), the school district deems performance evaluations of its employees, including the superintendent, confidential and exempt from disclosure under the Georgia Open Records Act,” Brook Whitmire wrote back the same day.
Whitmire, is the chief Human Resources Officer for Oconee County Schools and is designated as the open records officer.
I wrote to Argo and Odom on Sept. 4 and asked why the Board did not increase Branch's salary with the new contract approved on Aug. 2. Neither has responded.
Odom stepped down as Board Chair on Sept. 1, and the Board chose Argo as his replacement in a called meeting on Sept. 2.
The contract for Fiscal Year 2021 and the one approved on Aug. 2 for Fiscal Year 2022 are nearly identical.
The Aug. 2 version shortened the top matter to say simply that the Board desires to employ Branch and the Branch is willing to accept the Board’s offer. It states that the Board and Branch agree to the contract.
Both contracts state that the “Superintendent shall be responsible for the administration of the School District, consistent with the policies enacted by the Board.”
Branch is to receive an annual salary of $234,000, each contract states, paid in installments across 12 months.
The Board and the superintendent “may mutually agree to adjust the salary of the superintendent during the term of this contract, but in no event shall he be paid less than the salary specified above,” both contracts read.
In addition to the salary, the superintendent shall be paid a travel allowance of $1,000 per month, according to both contracts.
The School Board hired Branch in March 2012 with contract beginning on June 1 of that year.
|Board Of Education 8/2/2021|
Argo, Parrish, Branch, Odom,
Tim Burgess, Michael Ransom (L-R)
According to Open Georgia web site of the state Department of Audits and Accounts, Branch was paid $12,418 for the month of June and then $154,820 as his contract began on July 1, the beginning of the 2013 Fiscal Year.
That annual salary compared with the $157,814 that John Jackson, the retiring superintendent, was paid for the full prior academic year.
Branch’s salary in the 2014 Fiscal Year was $154,321 and then increased to $181,064 in Fiscal Year 2015.
Branch’s salary increased to $183,871 in 2016, to $191,318 in 2017, to $201,072 in 2018, to $204,188 in 2019, and to $210,188 in 2020. It increased to the $234,000 the following year.
From 2014 to 2021, Branch’s average annual salary increase was 6.3 percent.
The increase of 11.3 percent from Fiscal year 2020 to 2021 was the second largest Branch has received, following the 17.3 percent increase he received in 2015.
Oconee County is the 136th largest of the 180 school districts in the state, with 8,290 students in the last official tally of enrollments on March 1, 2021.
Valdosta City and Walker County systems are comparable in size, though not in location. Valdosta is in the far south of the state, and Walker County is in the far northwest of the state.
The last year for which state data on salaries are available on the Open Georgia web site is Fiscal Year 2020, which ended on June 30 of that year.
The superintendent of Valdosta City Schools in 2020 made $204,646, and the superintendent in Walker county made $156,602.
Branch made $210,188 that year.
The superintendent of Clark County School System made $186,625 in Fiscal Year 2020, and the superintendent of Barrow County Schools made $197,760.
Clarke County enrollment in March of 2021 was 12,431, and it was 14,141 in Barrow County.
Branch is certainly the highest paid county-level employee in Oconee County.
County Administrator Justin Kirouac made $114,288 in calendar Year 2019, which included half of Fiscal Year 2020, according to the web site OpenGovPay.
Then Sheriff Scott Berry made $108,354, and Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell made $103,603.
If the interpretation on UGA's website is correct, performance evals are not considered exempt from release. Have a look here: https://news.uga.edu/open-records/
Specifically it says:
Are personnel files subject to disclosure under the Open Records Act?
Yes. Any exempt material in personnel files, such as social security numbers, medical information, home address and telephone number, or information relating to the designation of beneficiaries, may be redacted.
Are performance evaluations subject to disclosure under the Open Records Act?
Yes. There is no exemption generally applicable to performance evaluations.
The only exemption that is even close relates to the hiring of someone (e.g. "confidential evaluations submitted to a public agency in connection with the hiring of a public employee.") not their ongoing performance evals.
This is from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation Greenbook:
Under the provisions of a separate Georgia law, annual teacher evaluations
in public schools are not subject to the Act’s disclosure requirements.
56 After redaction of the information cited above, however, other
performance evaluations are subject to release.57 The annual evaluations
of school superintendents are not subject to release.58
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