Thursday, October 21, 2021

Oconee School Board Approves Application For State Construction Funding At Three Schools, Spending For Chromebooks

***Citizens Request Different Uses Of Federal Relief Funds***

The Oconee County Board of Education on Monday approved a $1.4 million Capital Outlay Project Application with the Georgia Department of Education for renovations and modifications at three of its schools.

The state Department of Education already has approved the application, and the Board action was necessary to meet the condition of committing Oconee County Schools to spend local matching funds on the projects.

The renovation and modifications to Oconee County Primary School and Oconee County Elementary School already are included in listed construction to be funded by the Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) approved by voters in March.

The modifications to Oconee County High School were not listed specifically in the ELOST promotional materials, but the resolution approved by the Board setting up the March vote is general enough to cover the project.

Last year, the Department of Education agreed to provide to Oconee County Schools $5.4 million for construction of a third middle school. Oconee County Schools has not yet moved forward on that project.

In other action at its regular meeting on Monday, the Board agreed to spend $357,408 in federal pandemic relief funds to purchase 876 Chromebooks for future students and to be used as loaners for devices being serviced.

One of the two citizens who spoke in the Public Comment section of the meeting criticized the Board for its dependence on Chromebooks, saying Oconee County Schools should make more use of traditional textbooks.

Another asked the Board to use federal funds to improve ventilation in the schools.

Capital Outlay Application

The Capital Outlay Application is the mechanism by which Oconee County Schools seeks state funds for construction projects.

Wayne Bagley, Branch, Kim Argo, Burgess

Brock Toole, chief operations officer for Oconee County Schools, told the Board at its work session on Oct. 4 that roofs at Oconee Primary, Oconee Elementary, and Oconee County High School met state conditions for funding for replacement.

Toole presented only a summary of that request at the meeting, but I obtained the actual Capital Outlay Project Application for Fiscal Year 2023 via an open records request.

Oconee County Schools sought $828,202 for $2,423,214 in total modifications at Oconee County Primary School, $393,702 for $1,151,950 in modifications at Oconee County Elementary School, and $154,305 for $526,325 in modifications at Oconee County High School.

Oconee County Primary School offers Preschool, Kindergarten, and Grades 1 and 2. Oconee County Elementary School includes Grades 3 to 5.

The modifications at Oconee County Primary School are for replacement of a roof and a cooler/freezer and dishwasher in kitchen.

The renovation are for a list of projects including new floor covering, rewiring, restroom modernization, new windows, and fire alarms and an intercom.

At Oconee County Elementary School, the modifications include the replacement of roofs on three buildings, the replacement of a HVAC, and the replacement or addition of bus rider and car rider canopies.

At Oconee County High School, the modification is for replacement of a roof.

Action Items

Superintendent Jason Branch requested the Board approved the Capital Outlay Project Application for Fiscal Year 2023 at the end of Monday’s regular meeting.

“This is paperwork that allows us to draw down funds that will match local funds from the state,” Branch said. 

“Let me make sure I understand,” Board Member Tim Burgess said. “This is our application basically that we’re submitting to the state Board to secure the state funding for these projects at these schools? Right?”

“Yes sir,” Branch said.

”We’ve still got to go through a bidding process and secure bids for a final project budget for each of these projects. Right?” Burgess asked.

“Absolutely,” Branch said.

Date Of Approval

The Application that I received from my open records request indicated that it had been approved on Oct. 11, 2021.

Toole, in telephone conversation on Wednesday, told me that on Aug. 11 the state had approved the Capital Outlay funds “for us to draw down for these particular projects.”

The Board, he said, on Monday was approving the projects for “us to go out and get that money from the state” and indicating that the Board “will approve the local percentage that goes along with it.”

The Board on Monday also voted, on Branch’s recommendation, to spend the $357,408 in federal pandemic relief funds for the 876 Chromebooks.

First Speaker

The Board action on the Capital Outlay Application and on the Chromebook purchase was preceded by the Public Comment section of the meeting.

Burgess, Michael Ransom, Cruz

The first of those who registered to speak was Dr. Victoria Cruz, a retired pathologist who said one of her areas of interest was immunology and blood banking.

“I applaud you for following the science in your decision making–making it optional for masks,” she said.

“However, I would like to point out, one thing that has been shown to be possibly the best mitigating action the Board could take for decreasing the spread of any infection in the schools would be upgrading the HVAC system,” Cruz said.

Cruz said the there should be “at least–at least--six air changes per hour.”

“That has been shown by industrial hygienists to be the best way of clearing all contaminants from the air,” she said.

The alternative, Cruz said, would be to let “fresh air through the schools. If windows can be open, that would be ideal.”

Cruz added that “with the money that’s coming in from the federal government, perhaps that could be allocated to make sure that the HVAC system is up to par.

“Then we would not have to worry about influenza and any other respiratory diseases that are spread around to the kids,” she said. “To me, that would be the best use of funds and following the science to the nth degree.”

Second Speaker

Julie Mauck, the second speaker, told the Board that “I wrote you on email stating that I really believe that Oconee education is going to suffer if we don't get back to educating our children properly with textbooks.”

Burgess, Ransom, Mauck

‘I'm here to also read my email out loud because I didn't hear back from any of you,” she said.

Mauck said she did get a call from Oconee County High School Principal Kevin Yancey “and I appreciate it and we had a really good discussion.”

“I really would like to know your thoughts on why Oconee County has become so dependent on Google Chromebooks and why we can't at least have textbooks as an option,” Mauck asked.

“The research is in,” she said. “The kids do learn more and learn more effectively with textbooks.”

Mauck said the ELOST Tax revenue has increased and “we have some federal COVID funding that's unallocated.”

“It'd be a great time to fund new textbooks and some trusted curriculum,” she said.

No one responded to her comments, or to those of Cruz, and the Board moved immediately to the action items presented by Superintendent Branch.

CDC Guidelines

Oconee County Schools opened on Aug. 4 with the stipulation that masks were allowed in the schools but not required.

On Aug. 5, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Due changed its Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools recommending “universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”

Oconee County Schools did not change its policy after the CDC altered its guidance on masks.

The CDC also recommends increasing outdoor air flow to classrooms by opening windows, setting HVAC systems to bring in additional outside air, and reducing or eliminating the recirculation of air.

School systems should “Consider running the HVAC system at maximum outside airflow for two hours before and after the building is occupied,” according to the recommendations.


In the application for ESSER III Funds, Oconee County Schools had the option of requesting funds for “Inspection, testing, maintenance, repair, replacement, and upgrade projects to improve the indoor air quality in school facilities, including mechanical and nonmechanical heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, filtering, purification and other air cleaning, fans, control systems, and window and door repair and replacement.”

Oconee County Schools requested no funds for those purposes.

ESSER is for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. ESSER III funds were part of the American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress on March 11, 2021.

Oconee County Schools requested that 48.3 percent of its funds be used for the purchase of educational technology. 

That translates to $1.6 million.

Business Services Report

Oconee County Schools Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow, in her Business Services Report to the Board, indicated that Oconee County Schools spent or encumbered $435,696 in federal funds under ESSER III in September.

Burgess, Ransom, Harlow

The federal report was one of six reports Harlow gave to the Board, and no Board member asked any questions about any of them.

In addition to the $357,408 the Board has agreed to spend from ESSER funds for the Chromebooks, it voted at its regular meeting on Sept. 20 to spend $398,818 for four new school buses from ESSER funds.

The report shows that 71.3 percent of the listed $3.1 million available in this Fiscal Year in ESSER III funds remains unspent and unencumbered.

In August, that figure had been 84.6 percent.

Harlow also told the Board that Education Local Option Sales Tax collection in August was up 26.8 percent over August of 2020.

That was the fourth month in a row in which collections were up more than 20 percent over a year earlier.

The average increase over the same month last year over the last 14 months is 16.3 percent.

Middle School Funds From State

When I filed my open records request for the Capital Outlay Application for Oconee County Schools for Fiscal Year 2023, I also asked for applications and related documents for Fiscal Years 2021 and 2022.

Brook Whitmire, who handles open records requests for Oconee County Schools, said the system did not make application for state funds in Fiscal Year 2021.

In Fiscal Year 2022, Oconee County Schools requested and received $5.4 million for the planned third middle school for the county.

The actual contractual agreement from the state for those funds was attached to a letter to Branch dated July 12, 2021, from the Georgia Department of Education.

The monies were included in the Fiscal Year 2022 Appropriations Act signed by Gov. Brian Kemp on May 10, 2021, according to the letter.

Details Of Application

The application lists 17 classrooms, seven science labs, and eight other labs or rooms at the new middle school.

The system has land available for the facility next to Dove Creek Elementary School on Hog Mountain Road in the far northwest of the county.

Total square footage for the new building listed in the application is 73,874.

Total cost of the new middle school is listed as $36.6 million.

The middle school was listed in promotional materials as the top priority among the projects to be funded by ELOST VI, approved by voters in March.

So far, the Board has approved spending for classroom additions at Colham Ferry Elementary School and at High Shoals Elementary School, but it has not taken any public action on the middle school.


Oconee County Schools does not livestream its meetings, but it does record them and post the recording on its web site.

The pictures used in the post above are screen shots from that video.

Most of the early part of the meet on Monday was taken up with awards and recognitions.

Harlow began her report at 19:04 in the video.

Cruz began speaking at 21:21 in the video.

Mauck began her comments at 24:33.

Branch presented his Action Items for votes by the Board at 28:19 in the video.

I have linked to the video below.

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