Oconee County Schools had available at the end of August nearly $2.7 million in federal relief funds allocated to the schools, Liz Harlow, chief financial officer for the system told School Board members on Monday.
Harlow, making her first report after having been appointed chief financial officer at the Board’s Work Session a week earlier, also reported that collections for the system’s Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) were up 25 percent from July of last year.
That was the third month in a row that sales tax revenue have been up sharply from a year ago, and collections are averaging more than 14 percent higher than a year earlier, Harlow reported.
Following Harlow’s report, the Board voted to award a $2.8 million contract for construction of an eight-classroom addition to High Shoals Elementary School, to be paid for from ELOST funds, and to spend $0.4 million in federal relief funds on four new school buses.
The Board heard from one citizen who praised its COVID-19 policies and from another who criticized the Board for its appointment of Wayne Bagley to fill a vacancy on the Board without seeking citizen applications.
Members of the Board of Education will meet with members of the county’s Board of Commissioners on Wednesday in a session that will be open to the public but will not allow citizen input. The meeting will be in the Board Room at the Superintendent’s Office in Watkinsville.
Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell said on Thursday that his attempt to move the meeting to a larger venue with live streaming had been rejected by the School Board but that the meeting will be recorded and available for viewing on the county YouTube site.
Daniell told me in an email message on Thursday that “The meeting scheduled for September 29, 2021, is something we have sought for many years.
“The location for the meeting created the most discussion and included meeting at an alternate site,” he continued.
“With the BOE hosting this year, they felt the meeting should be at their offices,” his email message continued. “The BOE has agreed to seating for a minimum of 25 non-employee attendees.
“The meeting format does not allow for public interaction with the two Boards,” Daniell said.
“While the meeting will not be livestreamed, we will record the session for citizens to view at a time and place convenient to them personally,” the email states.
“We will post the video on our county YouTube channel,” Daniell wrote.
I had written to Daniell, Board of Education Chair Kim Argo, and all of the other eight members of the two Boards on Tuesday evening asking them to change the venue to a larger room and to live stream the session.
Only Daniell responded, saying “Thank you for reaching out.”
Daniell asked publicly in April of 2020 that the Board of Education join the Board of Commissioners in three public Town Hall Meetings, but the Board of Education rejected that request, proposing a “training” session instead.
The agenda released for the meeting on Wednesday begins at 5 p.m. with “Dinner and Conversation” lasting until 5:45 p.m.
Three topics are listed on the agenda, Organizational Overview, Budget Process, and Strategic Planning.
The format is for the Board of Education to begin each of these three topic areas, followed by the Board of Commissioners.
The session is scheduled to end at 8 p.m.
Three members of the Board of Commissioners, Daniell, Chuck Horton, and Mark Thomas, have served on the Board of Education, with Horton chairing the Board from 1997 to 2000.
The Board only allows citizens to speak at its regular meeting, not at its work sessions, and each speaker is given only three minutes to address the Board.
|Honeycutt With Board 9/20.2021|
Mitzi Honeycutt told the Board she has an eighth grader at Malcom Bridge Middle School and a senior at North Oconee High School.
“I would like to say that I'm proud to be a part of the Oconee school system, and our family appreciates how you guys are handling the school year by allowing families to choose what is best for them personally.
“Thank you for not getting sucked into quarantines and mandates of any kind regardless of how loud the noise is,” she continued.
“Mandates cannot be supported,” she said. “Thank you for protecting our children against mental health issues such as anxiety and depression caused by isolation and division.
“Thank you for moving forward and not backwards,” she said. “We are grateful for the ability for students and staff to be able to enjoy activities again.”
She said her child in middle school had gained from a field trip that provided information on work-based learning and her child in high school has enjoyed running cross-country.
Oconee County Schools does not require students to wear masks and does not require vaccinations of those who are eligible.
John Phillips said that citizens back in 1964 wanted an opportunity to vote for members of the Board of Education and approved an amendment to the state constitution for that purpose.
|Phillips With Board 9/20/2021|
“The 1964 law that you used to appoint members Argo and Bagley two weeks ago,” Phillips said, “was intended to do exactly the opposite of what you are doing. It was intended to give people the vote.”
“You have perverted the law by taking a small clause--a loophole if you will--and twisted it for your ill intent,” Phillips said.
“The law should be used as intended--to give citizens the right to vote,” Phillips said.
“I call upon all citizens of Oconee County to demand that Representatives (Marcus) Wiedower and (Houston) Gaines and Senator (Bill) Cowsert repeal this 57-year-old law and allow state law to require proper elections for vacant Board positions.”
On Sept. 2 the Board of Education appointed Vice-Chair Argo as Board Chair to replace Tom Odom, who stepped down, and filled her position with former Board Member Wayne Bagley. The Board did not follow past procedures and did not allow citizens to apply for the Board opening.
In 1964, Oconee County voters approved an amendment to the state constitution to allow for local election of members of the Board of Education rather than appointment by the Grand Jury. The amendment also allowed the Board to fill vacancies without an election, though that provision was not listed on the ballot.
As is usually the case following citizen comment, no member of the Board responded to either Honeycutt or Phillips.
Federal Funding Report
Oconee County Schools has been allocated $331,084 in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, $1,487,017 in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, and $3,339,628 in the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act.
|Supt. Branch, Argo, Burgess, |
Michael Ransom, Harlow (L-R) 9/20/2021
These are all for Education Stabilization and are referred to as ESSER I, ESSER II, And ESSER III monies respectively, for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief.
Harlow gave the first report on spending on ESSER I and ESSER III monies at the Sept. 9 meeting of the Board. ESSER II monies did not carry over into the new fiscal year, and Harlow showed on Monday $3,133,271 in ESSER I and ESSER III funds in the current fiscal year.
Harlow, who had been director of finance under former Chief Financial Officer Sarana Charping, was then acting chief financial officer. Charping stepped down on June 30.
Since that July report, Oconee County Schools has spent only $292,419, the report Harlow released on Monday shows.
Of that amount, $3,042 was for nursing, while the remainder was unspecified spending under ESSER III.
In its application for the ESSER III monies, Oconee County Schools said it would spend 48.3 percent of the funds on purchasing educational technology.
Buses are not listed in the application, but 20.4 percent ($681,284) of the funds are set aside for “Other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency.”
Harlow reported that Oconee County Schools collected $779,023 from the 1 percent ELOST in July, up from $621,378 in July of 2020.
That 25.4 percent increase followed a 26.1 percent increase in June, and a 24.2 percent increase in May.
The average across the last 14 months has been 14.4 percent.
Harlow asked for questions from the Board after she gave her report, and Board Member Tim Burgess responded.
“Just a comment,” he said. “This is our newly installed chief financial officer.
“I couldn't help but note your first month out--25 growth in our sales tax,” he continued. “So soon.
“Now that you've taken on the reins,” he said. “That will continue?”
That produced a laugh. No other Board member had a comment or question.
Classrooms And Buses
On the recommendation of Superintendent Jason Branch, the Board agreed to purchase three 78-passenger buses and one 72-passenger bus for a total cost of $393,818. (The money will come from ESSER III, but it was not reflected in the August report by Harlow.)
OCS received only two bids, and the low bidder was Thomas Peach State Freightliner of Jefferson. The contract went to Thomas Peach State.
Branch also recommended awarding the bid to Amacher Bros. Construction Company of Atlanta for $2,756,000. Amacher was the low bidder among five companies that submitted proposals for the eight-classroom addition at High Shoals Elementary.
In June the Board awarded a $3,135,000 contract to Amacher for a 10-classroom addition at Colham Ferry Elementary School.
Amacher also built the Dove Creek Elementary School on Hog Mountain Road in the far west of the county.
Although promotional materials before the most recent ELOST vote listed a middle school at the Dove Creek campus as the top priority, the Board has gone forward with the two elementary school additions before any action has been taken on the middle school.
Documents not released to the public indicate that the plans always had been for construction of the two elementary school additions before the middle school construction.
The ELOST project list also includes money for new buses, though the exact number was not listed.
Harlow began her financial report at 17:21 in the video.
Honeycutt began speaking at 20:29 in the video.
Phillips began his comments at 23:38.
Branch presented the action items, including the bus purchase and the contract for High Shoals Elementary, at 26:01.