John Phillips told the Oconee County Board of Education on Monday that Oconee County Schools is out of compliance with requirements for use of federal relief funds and called on the Board to investigate.
On Tuesday morning, Phillips filed a complaint with the Georgia Department of Education, which administers the federal funds, also asking for an investigation to “determine if there has been fraud, waste, and abuse” at Oconee County Schools.
Phillips, the parent of two in Oconee County Schools, was one of three citizens who addressed the Board during its nearly hour-long regular meeting on Monday.
Before Phillips spoke, Richard Turner told the Board that “we are in the middle of a scamdemic” and he applauded the Board for not mandating the wearing of “face diapers” or forcing vaccinations at the schools.
David Lawrence followed Phillips and called on the Board to be more responsive to “concerns and questions” raised by citizens, including at meetings, saying at present “hearing back rarely happens.”
Though Board members are free to respond to comments raised by citizens, they rarely do so, and none responded to the comments made by any of the three speakers on Monday night.
In the brief action section of the meeting on Monday that followed the citizen comments, the Board approved the recommendation of Superintendent Jason Branch that the third middle school under construction be named Dove Creek Middle School.
The Board also agreed to spend $89,098 for a new technology firewall, $164,270 for network cabling at the new middle school, and $30,500 for a learning management system (with an annual cost of $61,698). The Board approved using federal relief funds for parts of the costs.
Complaint To State
Phillips sent his complaint via email to Matt Cardoza and Charmaine Simmons, who have oversight for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER) in the Georgia Department of Education, at 9:21 a.m. on Monday.
|Phillips With Ransom|
The federal funds flow through and are administered by the Georgia Department of Education.
Oconee County Schools has reported receiving $331,084 in ESSER I funds from the first wave of relief funding, $1,487,017 in ESSER II funds in the second wave, and $3,339,628 in ESSER III funds in the third wave.
In Phillips’ complaint to the state, he focused on the use of ESSER III funds, from the American Rescue Plan, as he had at the Board of Education on Monday night.
That Monday night presentation was a shortened version of the comments sent to the state to fit the three-minute limitation set for public comments by the Board.
Phillips, who has a doctorate in sociology and has been principal investigator on federal grants in the past, told me in telephone conversation on Tuesday afternoon that he is very familiar with federal grant reporting requirements.
Phillips is executive director of FALCON (First Americans Land Grant Consortium) and has served as a National Program Leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service.
In the email and in the comments to the Board on Monday, Phillips said that Oconee County Schools had given the Georgia Department of Education several “assurances” when it applied for ESSER III funding on June 3, 2021, “to help with COVID prevention, mitigation, and recovery.”
The first assurance, Phillips said, is that the “funds will be used for their intended purposes.” OCS promised, Phillips said, to use the funds “specifically for COVID-19 prevention and mitigation strategies.”
“Each of these purchases has been approved by the Board, yet there has been no discussion or explanation of how of if these purchases relate to COVID prevention, mitigation, or recovery,” Phillips said.
Commitment To Seek Public Comment
Phillips said Oconee County Schools also committed to “review and, as appropriate, revise its plan” at least every six months and “to seek public input and take such input into account in determining whether to revise its plan and on the revisions it makes to its plan.”
“OCS posted a revised plan dated Nov. 8, 2021,” Phillips said, “yet there has been no public comment process whatsoever. The public was not invited to provide comments of the development or revision of the plan.”
“According to the law, public input must be ‘meaningful consultation’ with stakeholders, including students, families, and those representing the interests of children with disabilities, English learners, children experiencing homelessness, and so forth,” Phillips said.
“This means more than a simple one-day survey of some so called advisory group or cherry picking social media comments,” he added.
(The revised plan dated Nov. 8, 2021, to which Phillips referred provides different fund allocations than in the original application.)
(Funding for mental health services increased, and funding in the “Other” category decreased.)
(For the first time “School Buses” were listed in the "Other" category as an expense.)
The third assurance that Oconee County Schools gave in its application is that any revised plan will address “each of the aspects of safety currently recommended” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Phillips said.
“OCS has failed to address recommendations by the CDC,” Phillips said. “In fact, you state in the application the plan is updated to CDC guidelines. That’s on page 15. But that is clearly a false statement.
“OCS does not follow CDC guidelines in several significant ways including no universal indoor masking, no physical distancing, no masking on school buses, no screening testing.”
“Therefore, OCS is out of compliance with the requirements of the APR ESSER III federal grant award,” Phillips told the Board. “An investigation should be undertaken without delay to determine if there has been fraud, waste, and abuse.”
“Someone has failed to do their job, and leadership at all levels has failed to provide proper oversight,” Phillips told the Board on Monday. “Where is the accountability? The voters of this county are asking.”
Phillips said on Wednesday that he had not received any response to his email to the Georgia Department of Education.
Praise To Board For Inaction
Phillips spoke after Turner had thanked the Board for not following those CDC guidelines.
|Turner with Board Member Mike Ransom|
“I just wanted to thank you all, again, for having an exceptional school system, and supporting it, and supporting the liberty if people feel to make a choice to attend school without having to be mandated to wear face diapers or quarantine if they get sick or what,” Turner said.
(Oconee County Schools follows CDC guidelines and requires quarantines.)
Turner said “the most recent study out of Finland, shows that they basically make no difference.
“You wear a mask, you don’t wear a mask, you’ve got just as much chance of catching the virus, and these were healthy people, they started with, 6,000 person study,” he said.
(I could not find any Finnish study on masks, but a Danish study of 6,024 adults in April and May of 2020 has been used to argue against the effectiveness of masks. The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare recommends wearing masks.)
“So face masks are, if you want to wear one, fine, I don’t have a problem with it. If you want to put stuff in your ears, pierce yourself, do whatever you want, as long as its not intruding on what I want,” he continued.
“But when it comes around also to vaccinating children with an experimental chemical, I get kind of upset,” Turner said.
“We are in the middle of a scamdemic, in my opinion, and anything you all can do to allow us to have the freedom to make a choice to control our own health, I applaud it,” Turner said. “And I applaud you all for what you have done.”
Criticism For Lack Of Communication
Lawrence also began his comments on an upbeat note.
|Lawrence With Ranson|
“Hopefully Oconee County Schools is a team,” he said. “Parents, students, staff, administration and elected officials. We should all work together for the good of everyone, but mostly for our students.”
“Concerns and questions brought forth at any level and at all levels should be viewed as opportunities for improvements,” Lawrence continued.
“We citizens very much appreciate hearing back from you (the Office of the Superintendent, Board of Education members, assistant superintendents, etc.) when we send an email, make a phone call, or address you all publicly like I’m doing now,” Lawrence said.
“Hearing back rarely happens,” he said. “It rarely happens in a timely manner if at all.”
“When a complainant brings forth a concern, it should be handled at whatever level is appropriate–building level, teacher level, whatever, but I feel the BOE needs a firm policy in regards to concerns involving possible violations of constitutional rights or federal and or state laws.”
“It is easy to forget sometimes in this mostly homogenous community that some citizens, teachers, parents, students are embarrassed and or fearful to bring forth their concerns because they are not in the majority and some fear repercussions,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence criticized Oconee County Schools for its slow response to a complaint by a parent about a religious display at Oconee County Middle School.
Citizens are given an opportunity to speak only near the end of the meeting.
As is usually the case, at Monday’s meeting eight minutes of a 52-minute-long meeting were used for recognitions, and another 14 minutes were used by teachers and administrators at Colham Ferry Elementary School to report on activities at the school.
Later in the meeting, an additional two minutes were devoted to a video on “Points Of Pride” in the schools.
Citizen comments used up another 10 minutes of the meeting.
That left roughly 18 minutes for reports to the Board from Oconee County School Staff and for Board action.
Middle School Name
At the end of the staff reports, Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, Director of Communications for the schools, told the Board that Superintendent Jason Branch was recommending that the Board approve Dove Creek Middle School as the name of the new third middle school.
|Jimenez With Ransom|
Jimenez said that the two current middle schools, Oconee County Middle School and Malcom Bridge Middle School, are named “consistent with their closest elementary feeder school, Oconee County Elementary School and Malcom Bridge Elementary School, respectively.
“Naming middle school number three Dove Creek Middle school aligns with this long-standing practice as its closest feeder school is Dove Creek Elementary School,” she said.
In 2017, the school system sought suggestions for the name for Dove Creek Elementary School, and the schools received more than 200 names, Jimenez said.
“Dove Creek Elementary School was the unanimous choice of the Board, as research revealed that there was a one-room schoolhouse in Oconee County that was named Dove Creek,” she said.
That schoolhouse was closed in the late 1920s when the county began to consolidate schools, she added.
“That Dove Creek one-room school was actually located in the same vicinity that is currently home to Dove Creek Elementary School,” Jimenez said.
The campus for the two schools is in the far northwest of the county, near the Barrow County line, on Hog Mountain Road.
Duane Peterson, Director of Transportation, told the Board during the construction update that site clearing and grubbing is underway for the new middle school.
|Peterson With Ransom|
The contractor is ordering materials, a construction office has been set up, erosion control measures are being installed, he said.
The Board of Education voted in December to award a $34.4 million contract to Bowen and Watson Construction Company of Toccoa for construction of the new middle school.
The estimated total cost of the project is $39.6 million, including furnishing and technology, and construction is to be completed by May 31, 2023.
Peterson said the block work is complete for the classroom addition to Colham Ferry Elementary School and the roof is being installed this week.
“Electrical and mechanical contractors are installing wiring, and duct work,” he said. “Brick insulation is to begin in the coming weeks.”
Peterson said that the foundation and slab are completed at the classroom addition at High Shoals Elementary School.
Construction at both elementary schools is expected to be completed for next school year.
Liz Harlow, Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, presented the Board on Monday with its first report on revenue and spending for ELOST VI, the Education Local Option Sales Tax approved by voters last March.
|Harlow With Ransom|
The tax does not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2023, so the revenue comes from $42.9 million in bond proceeds, $21,350 in interest, and $2.4 million transferred in from the school General Fund.
Expenses to date are $1.8 million of the estimated total cost of $3.7 million for the Colham Ferry Elementary School addition, $0.5 million from the estimated total cost of $3.2 million for the High Shoals Elementary School addition, and $1.2 million of the estimated $39.6 million for the new middle school.
The current ELOST V report shows total revenue as of Dec. 31, 2021, of $66.0 million, total expenditures as of the end of the year of $40.1 million, and total bond payments due through the end of next year of $12.3 million.
Harlow also reported that ELOST collections continue to run above projection, with collections for November, the most recent month, up 21.0 percent over November of 2020.
Harlow also reported that of the $23,778 in ESSER I funds included in this year’s budget, only $3,862 remains unspent. No ESSER II funds are included in the current Fiscal Year Budget.
Of the $3.2 million in ESSER III in the current budget, $1.4 million remains unspent and unencumbered.
Other Action Taken
On the recommendation of Superintendent Branch, the Board approved a bid of $89,098 from Cirrus Network for a new technology firewall and a bid of $164,270 from Transcend Communications for network cabling at the new middle school.
Both were low bidders among those who met the requirements of the bid.
Instructure was the sole bidder, at $30,500, for the learning management system.
The firewall expenses will be covered from federal telecommunnications funding and from ESSER funds, and the first year cost of the learning management system will be paid for with ESSER funds.
The Board reappointed Member Amy Parrish as Vice Chair and Member Tim Burgess as legislative liaison. Burgess did not attend the Monday meeting.
The terms of Parrish and Board Member Wayne Bagley end this year, and neither has announced an intent to seek election.
Qualifying for Board of Education and Board of Commissioner candidates is March 7 to 11.
Commissioner Chuck Horton announced on Tuesday that he plans to seek re-election.
Commissioner Amrey Harden announced last week his plan to run for re-election.
Those four races are the only local county ones on the ballot in November.
The video linked below has been recorded by Oconee County Schools.
The embedded link below is to the YouTube Channel of Oconee County Schools.
The pictures I used above are screen shots from the video.
Peterson gave his construction report at 27:47 in the video.
Harlow came to the podium to speak at 33:29.
Jimenez gave her report at 37:34.
Turner began speaking at 39:38.
Phillip began speaking at 42:11.
Lawrence began speaking at 45:37.