Monday, January 24, 2022

Oconee County School Board Meets For Six Hours In Retreat In Barrow County But Gives No Record Of Discussion

***Minutes Only List Reports Made To Board***

The Oconee County Board of Education met outside the county at the Georgia Club last Wednesday in a six-hour retreat that had been announced late on the previous Friday.

Minutes from the meeting, which take up less than a page, indicate only that the Board heard presentations from Superintendent Jason Branch and six other school administrators.

The initial minutes did not indicate who attended the meeting, but a revision of the minutes indicated that each of the five Board of Education members attended. No members of the public are listed as attendees.

Oconee County Schools has not provided any video of the meeting on its YouTube channel, where it places videos of its Work Sessions and Regular Meetings.

Announcement Of Meeting

Oconee County Schools announced the 9 a.m. Jan. 19 meeting via an email message from Zoe Gattie, Executive Assistant to Branch, to Michael Prochaska, Editor of The Oconee Enterprise, at 4 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 14.

Screen Shot Showing Announcement Of Retreat, Top, Right

The Enterprise is the legal organ of the county, meaning it is where official notices of meetings and legal advertisements are placed.

Gattie attached an agenda for the meeting that listed four items: Call To Order, Agenda Approval, Presentations And Discussion Items, and Adjournment.

Under the Presentation and Discussion Items was listed Board Retreat.

Announcement of the meeting with a link to the agenda appeared on the Oconee County Schools Web Site.

Retreats Normal

The Board Meeting Dates, which are listed on the school web site, do not include the retreat.

Retreats are routine, however, as the Board held them on Jan. 23, 2021; Jan. 8, 2020; and Jan. 23, 2019. The planned meeting on Jan. 17, 2018, was cancelled because of snow.

The meetings in 2021, 2020, and 2019 also were held at The Georgia Club in Barrow County, and the cancelled meeting was scheduled to be held there as well.

The meetings in 2021, 2020, and 2019, all lasted more than six hours, according to the minutes, which, in each case, only indicated that presentations were made to the Board.

No details of discussion were provided.

Minutes List Presenters

The minutes for the meeting last Wednesday (Jan. 19) included presentations by Branch, Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow, Human Resources Director Brook Whitmire, Chief Operations Officer Brock Toole, and Chief Academic Officer Claire Buck.

Original Minutes Of Retreat

Also listed as presenters were Director of Communications Anisa Sullivan Jimenez and Director of Student Services Dallas LeDuff.

These individuals routinely report to the Board at its Work Sessions and Regular Meetings, and their reports, along with that of Branch, are the only operational parts of those meetings.

With the exception of Branch, the administrators give written reports that are subsequently shared with the public.

The scheduled meetings are dominated by recognitions and promotional presentations to the Board.

Board members sometimes ask questions of the presenters, but there rarely is any discussion of the reports or of anything else among Board members.

Transparency Request

The Board has come under criticism in the last year for how it conducts its meetings, which normally are held at the Superintendent’s Office, 34 School Street in Watkinsville.

Representatives of the First Amendment Clinic in the School of Law at the University of Georgia asked the Board in early February to live stream its meetings, provide video captioning of uploaded videos of meetings, and provide access for community members who wish to attend meetings virtually.

They also ask the Board to post “adequate notice” of special meetings and “adequate meeting minutes” of those sessions.

The uploaded videos of the meetings Oconee County Schools uploads now do include a transcript. Meetings are not live streamed.

At the Board meeting on Jan. 10 of this year, David Lawrence asked the Board to respond to comments made by citizens at the public meetings. Such a response is rare.

Citizen Access

I learned of the date and time of the retreat via an email message from a parent at 5 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 17.

I am immunocompromised, and, on the advice of my doctor, I am not attending meetings. I tried immediately to find someone who could attend and video record the meeting for me. I was not successful.

I received the notice sent to Prochaska at the Enterprise via an open records request I filed on Jan. 21.

At 1:10 p.m. on Jan. 19, the day of the meeting, I wrote to Gattie and asked: “Would you please add me to the list of people you notify of special meetings, such as the one today?”

Director of Communication Jimenez sent me an email the next morning.

“Zoe forwarded me your email below,” Jimenez wrote. “While we do not send out notices for Board Meetings except to the legal organ, notification of all Board meetings is posted on our website, as well as on Simbli.”

Simbli is the linked web site on which Board meeting agendas and minutes are stored.

Moms For Liberty

I emailed Julie Mauck, organizer of Moms For Liberty on Jan. 20, asking her if anyone from her group had attended the Retreat. Representatives of the group are attending routine Board meetings.

I was hoping to get additional insights on what was discussed during the six-hour meeting. (Prochaska told me the Enterprise did not staff the meeting.)

Mauck said no one from her group had attended the retreat.

Mauck sent me a copy of an email she sent to Branch and members of the Board on Jan. 21.

“There is really nothing there that memorializes which BOE members attended or what information was provided in that six hours,” she wrote. “Will you be providing the presentations of those named, or is there a video?”

Gattie responded that afternoon providing links to the Agenda and Minutes of the meeting.

She included a section of the minutes that included the names of the Board members as attendees, and the current version of the minutes now includes those names.

“OCS videotapes BOE Work Sessions and BOE Regular Sessions,” Gattie wrote.


Retired teacher Lawrence said...

Lee, thanks for your reporting, as always!
This BOE retreat is legitimate and seems to have become somewhat of a tradition. They can't vote on anything at a retreat. Hopefully they discussed a step increase in pay for Oconee's veteran teachers who do not get one after their 20th year here. (I just received my first step-increase raise in 10 years, but not from Oconee County Schools. It was from the GA Teachers Retirement System.) I also hope they are considering pay increases for substitute teachers and other non-certified staff. Also, it is extremely important for them to make sure federal Covid relief funds are being spent under the guidelines and accounted for correctly.
-David Lawrence

Lee Becker said...

The retreat is a legal meeting at which the Board can take action. In the retreat on Jan. 23, 2019, the Board voted to go into executive session and then reconvened and acted on a personnel matter. The minutes of that meeting contain the record of the personnel decision made in the session.