Oconee County’s Board of Education and Board of Commissioners have agreed to meet jointly on Sept. 29 in the small Oconee County Schools Board Room in what is being called a training session.
While the public is invited to attend–as is required by Georgia’s Open Meetings Act–the notices on the web sites of both Oconee County Schools and Oconee County Government, state that “there will not be an opportunity for public comment.”
Neither web site provides an agenda for the meeting, which stretches across the evening dining time from 5 to 8 p.m.
The meeting represents something of a victory for the Board of Education, which rejected the invitation of Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell to join the county commissioners in three Town Hall Meetings with the public at the end of last year and beginning of this year.
The School Board instead approved a proposal by then Board Chair Tom Odom that he approach the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia about conducting a training program for the members of the two Boards.
The announcements of the joint session does not indicate if the meeting will be moderated. It states only that the meeting will be a “joint planning session to include discussion on organizational structure and future planning.”
The Board of Commissioners held its most recent Town Hall Meeting on Sept. 14 in the large theater of the Civic Center, which is jointly owned and operated by Oconee County Schools and the county government.
That Town Hall Meeting and all meetings of the Board of Commissioners are live streamed, while the Board of Education does not live stream its meetings. No links for remote viewing of the Sept. 29 joint meeting are provided in the announcements.
At the April 20, 2020, meeting of the Board of Education, Board of Commissioners Chair Daniell registered as a citizen speaker and asked the School Board to accept his invitation to appear in Joint Town Hall Meetings with the Board of Commissioners on May 28 and Aug. 27 of that year and on Jan. 28, 2021.
|Superintendent Office With Board Room|
At the May 4, 2020, Board meeting, Odom said that he did not feel joint meetings would be helpful and proposed instead that the two Boards turn to the Carl Vinson Institute for a joint training session.
“I don’t see where a joint Town Hall–this is my opinion–I don’t see that a joint Town Hall would serve any purpose at this present time,” Odom said.
“It would not address, in my opinion, relationship issues that prevent productive activity,” he added.
Instead, Odom said what is needed is “joint whole board training” conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute.
Each of the other four Board members in turn endorsed Odom’s idea.
Conflict Between Boards
The two Boards have been at odds since at least 2017, when the Board of Education announced that it had purchased the site for the Dove Creek Elementary School on Hog Mountain Road in the far west of the county.
The county was obligated to provide road and other infrastructure for the site, which is nearly on the Barrow County line, and county officials said they were not consulted on the purchase.
In the spring of 2018, the county halted work on the entrance to the new Dove Creek Elementary School after discovering a high pressure gas line that ran along the right of way in front of the school property.
The Board of Commissioners sought help from the Board of Education in paying for the added expense caused by the pipeline, which School Superintendent Jason Branch said Oconee County Schools was not aware of before it purchased the property.
In the end, Oconee County Schools would not contribute to the costs, and the county had to draw on reserves to pay for infrastructure improvements for the school, including for the road work.
The Board of Education in 2019 blocked the county’s efforts to build roundabouts in front of Malcom Bridge Middle Schools and disputed the fee that the county charges Oconee County Schools for collection of property taxes,
It also argued that it was not consulted properly about renovations at the Civic Center and decided to started charging the county for use of school recreational facilities.
Odom referenced these disputes when he called for a “training” session.
The Board Room where the meeting is scheduled to take place on Sept. 29 occupies somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter to a third of the Superintendent’s Office Building at 34 School Street in Watkinsville.
That building, built in 1970 and renovated in 1991, according to county tax records, is 3,975 square feet in size.
That means the room is in the range of 1,000 to 1,300 square feet in size.
With all five members of the Board of Education and all five members of the Board of Commissioners present, as well as any support staff, such as Superintendent Branch and County Administrator Justin Kirouac, little space will be available for the public.
Normal Board of Education meetings provide only limited space for non-Board members, and much of that space often is taken up by school administrators.
The Civic Center, 2661 Hog Mountain Road, west of Butler’s Crossing, includes numerous large meeting rooms that were renovated last year. The HVAC system was upgraded in that renovation.