Monday, October 11, 2021

Oconee County School Board To Be Asked To Spend Pandemic Relief Funds On Chromebooks For Future Use

***County Commission Approves Solid Waste Plan***

Oconee County Schools Superintendent Jason Branch, in a brief work session last week, asked the Board of Education to spend $357,408 in federal emergency pandemic relief funds for purchase of 876 additional Chromebook computers.

The new computers will be distributed to new students and will be used as loaners during repairs of already issued devices, according to the request.

Oconee County Schools has been allocated just less than $5.2 million in federal funds under the three relief bills passed by Congress, with the money to be used for Educational Stabilization to offset the impact of the pandemic on education.

Of that amount, Oconee County School has apportioned just less than $2.1 million, or 40.5 percent, for technology.

The Board will respond to Branch’s request on the Chromebook purchases at its regular meeting on Oct. 18.

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners also held a brief meeting last week at which it adopted an update to the Northeast Georgia Solid Waste Management Plan and approved a Contract Manager at Risk with the Mathias Corporation of Duluth for the Administrative Building construction.

Work Session Format

Board of Education work sessions have a fixed format, with the Superintendent’s Report to the Board followed by presentations from the staff to the Board. The presentations include a promotional monthly highlights video.

The highlights video on Monday was rather short, at a little more than two minutes.

Sometimes a recognitions session is inserted between the Superintendent’s Report and the staff report, but no recognitions were on the agenda on Monday.

Board members usually ask few questions following the superintendent's and staff reports, and there almost never is any discussion.

No citizens comments are allowed at work sessions.

The Monday work session lasted 18 minutes and was followed by a 17-minute long executive session, from which the public is excluded.

When the Board reconvened from the executive session it approved the hiring of 15 persons, including four teachers and a new assistant principal at Dove Creek Elementary School.

It also approved four promotions or job changes and 12 separations.

Superintendent Report

Branch used his Superintendent’s Report on Monday (Oct. 4) to tell the Board that both and have released their rankings of Georgia schools.

Branch, Center, With Board Members
Wayne Bagley, Amy Parrish, Kim Argo (L-R)

“Oconee County Schools is the number one county school system in Georgia for both of those ranking systems,” Branch told the Board.

“So I again want to commend our leaders and our teachers and all of our support staff, community, and students,” Branch said. 

“They help make the schools and the school system what it is," he continued.

“I appreciate everybody's hard work especially as we work and continue to see these accolades and achievements in the midst of the pandemic, which we all know we're still working through,” he added.

City School Districts

Branch didn’t tell the Board that two city school districts in Georgia–Jefferson City and Bremen City–moved ahead of Oconee County Schools in the School Digger rankings from a year ago, though by a very small amount, so that Oconee County fell in those rankings from first to third.

In the rankings, as was the case last year, Buford City Schools outranked Oconee County Schools.

No one on the Board expressed any knowledge about or interest in how the city schools fared in the state or why Oconee County Schools dropped slightly in the rankings if the city school districts are included.

Branch also congratulated North Oconee High School and Oconee County High School for being listed by Great Schools as a College Success Gold Award recipient.

Branch didn’t say anything about this, but the school web site says Oconee County schools is the “only county system in Northeast Georgia to have high schools on list.”

Jefferson High School in the Jefferson City School District also is on the list.

Teaching And Learning Report

Claire Buck, chief academic officer, followed Branch and told the Board in her Teaching and Learning Report on Monday that she wanted to provide an update on the 2021 college entrance Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) results.

Buck With Board Member Michael Ransom

“I just want to point out as I did when we were reviewing the Milestones results, that it is important that these results are interpreted in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated learning disruptions,” she said.

Buck presented the Board with three charts, showing SAT scores for the Oconee County students in 2021 compared with earlier years, the number of test takers in 2021 compared with earlier years, and Oconee County scores compared with others in the Northeast Georgia District.

Buck said 2021 test takers at Oconee County Schools had a composition SAT score of 1133.

“I want to point out that this is well above the state score of 1077 and the national mean score of 1038,” she said.

“Additionally Oconee County Schools is ranked fifth in the state among county school systems and is the only system in the Northeast Georgia RESA that is ranked in the top 10.”

RESA stands for Regional Educational Service Agency and covers 13 school districts in 10 counties.

Lower Scores Not Noted

The tables displayed on the screen by Buck show clearly that the SAT for Oconee County’s two high schools were lower in 2021 than in any year going back to 2017, but Buck did not make mention of this, and none of the Board members questioned her about it.

Buck did emphasize the word "county" when she said that Oconee County ranked fifth among "county" school districts in the state.

The slide that Buck presented to the Board showed that Oconee County Schools ranks eighth, behind three city school districts, Decatur, Buford, and Thomasville.

No Board member made any comment about that difference.

Oconee County Schools had ranked number three in the state in 2020 among all school districts, including city districts, number four in 2019, and number two in 2018.

“As you can see here, the number testing is a little bit lower than the previous year,” Buck noted, referring to the number of test takers. “There are some things that this could be attributed to,” she added.

As a result the pandemic, some of the test centers were closed, she said, and the University System of Georgia gave a temporary waiver of the SAT and ACT school requirements. The ACT is the rival to the SAT.

“I just want to congratulate our students, our parents, our teachers, and administrators for these results during the unprecedented year,” Buck said in conclusion of the SAT part of her presentation.

ESSER Spending

Buck told the Board she will ask for its approval of the purchase of the Chromebooks at the Oct 18 meeting on behalf of the superintendent.

“These devices will be used for new students as well as for loaner devices as others are needing to be repaired,” she said.

The school system received 12 bids in response to its request for proposals and selected the bid by Virtucom of $357,408 as low bidder among those who submitted bids meeting the proposal requirements. Virtucom is based in Peachtree Corners in Gwinnett County.

The Chromebooks will be purchased with ESSER Funds, Buck said.

Liz Harlow, chief financial officer for Oconee County Schools, told the Board at its Sept. 20 regular meeting that the system had $3.1 million in ESSER I and ESSER III funds in the current fiscal year budget.

ESSER is for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief.

Redundancy In Funding

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, which translates to $1.6 million.

At its September regular meeting, the Board approved spending $398,818 for four new school buses from ESSER funds.

Buses are not listed in the ESSER III 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.”

In March, voters approved the new Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST), which also included funding for devices such as Chromebooks and for new buses.

Most of the relief funds had not been approved by Congress at that point, and school administrators have not said how much less they will spend from ELOST for technology and buses because of their use of the ESSER funds for those purposes.

Operations Report

Also at the Board’s work session on Monday, Fred Ricketson, director of facilities, said that the plumbing and electrical work is roughed in for the 10-classroom addition at Colham Ferry Elementary School.

Ricketson With Burgess And Ransom

Richetson said that Amacher Bros. Construction of Atlanta now is in the procurement process for the eight classroom addition at High Shoals Elementary School.

The Board has awarded Amacher contracts for $3.1 million for the Colham Ferry addition and $2.8 million for the High Shoals addition. Both projects are being funded by ELOST.

Brock Toole, chief operations officer, for Oconee County Schools, told the Board that it will be asked at the Oct. 18 meeting to approve the Fiscal Year 2023 Capital Outlay Project Application.

The state requires local school systems to file an application for construction projects for which state funds are being sought.

Toole said the work covered by the application will be completed next summer.

Listed Projects

Included on the list of projects is renovation and modifications at Oconee County Primary School ($2,423,214), modifications at Oconee County Elementary School ($1,151,950), and Modifications at Oconee County High School ($526,325).

Burgess, Ransom, Toole (L-R)

Oconee County Schools is seeking $828,202 in state funding for Oconee County Primary School, $393,702 for Oconee County Elementary School, and $144,305 for Oconee County High School.

“This is obviously a little bit higher than what we have been talking about a couple months ago,” Board Member Tim Burgess said when Toole had finished.

“What now is added to this, included in this, that we didn't have it before?” he asked.

“We learned there’s a need and we’re eligible for state Capital Outlay Funds for roofs,” Toole said. “So we’re going to be doing both renovations and modifications” at Oconee County Primary School and Oconee County Elementary School.

Only roof work will be done at Oconee County High School, Toole said.

Renovations of Oconee County Primary School and of Oconee County Elementary School were listed as projects to be funded by the ELOST passed in March, though no cost figures were released to the public for any of the listed ELOST projects.

Renovations at Oconee County Primary School and Oconee County Elementary School also were listed as in the top priorities on the Five-Year Facility Plan that the Board submitted to the state in November of 2019.

BOC Meeting

The Board of Commissioners on Tuesday (Oct. 5) gave final approval to the Regional Solid Waste Management Plan for the 10-county jurisdiction of the Northeast Georgia Regional Solid Waste Management Authority.

By passing the plan the county was providing assurance that it has solid waste handling capability and capacity for at least 10 years. Solid waste is shipped out of the county to a commercial facility in Banks County.

The Board also gave final approval to the contract Manager at Risk with the Mathias Corporation of Duluth for the Administrative Building construction on the northeastern edge of Watkinsville.

Final cost of the contract will depend on the cost of the project itself, which is still in the design state.

Funding will come from the proceeds of the bonds the county has sold against proceeds from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax approved by voters last November.


The first video link below is to the recorded meeting of the Oct. 4 Board of Education meeting.

The still images inserted above are cropped screen shots from that video.

Oconee County Schools will not allow anyone to embed the video it records of Board meetings, so the link leads to the YouTube site where the meeting is embedded.

Branch’s report begins at 0:32 in the video.

Buck began her Teaching and Learning Report at 03:12 in the video.

Toole began the operations report at 7:23 in the video.

The second video is from the Oct. 5 meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

Approval of the Solid Waste Management Plan and of the contract for the new administrative building was via the consent agenda created by the Board at its meeting on Sept. 28.

The video of that meeting is embedded in my earlier post on the solid waste plan.

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