Suzannah Heimel told the Oconee County School Board during the public comment section of its meeting last month that originally she had planned to come before the Board with prepared comments about accrediting standards and critical race theory.
She said she decided to put aside her initial comments, however, because “the governor has passed a law stating that we cannot teach CRT in our school system.”
Even with the governor’s action, however, she said she wanted to know “how are we going to make sure that CRT, equity, inclusion does not end up in our classrooms.” (Gov. Brian Kemp actually signed House Bill 1084 prohibiting the teaching of "divisive concepts" after she spoke.)
And Heimel wanted to know if a “new accreditation board has been selected” and if there “is there any community involvement” in that decision.
Board Chair Kim Argo told Heimel “I don't have that answer at this time,” and Board Member Tim Burgess asked School Superintendent Jason Branch if system Chief Academic Officer Claire Buck had not made “presentations on that in the past, on accreditation and how the whole process works?”
Branch told Burgess he was correct, and he told Heimel that “we'd be happy to have staff members follow up with you” on her questions.
Oconee County Schools has begun its accreditation review with Cognia, which, under a different name, did accreditation reviews of Oconee County Schools in 2013 and 2018.
Cognia has adopted a new set of standards that go into effect on July 1 of this year. Oconee County Schools has not given any indication publicly that it plans to change its accrediting agency.
House Bill 1084
The Board of Education regular meeting was on April 18, and Gov. Kemp held a ceremony on April 28 in Forsyth County to sign House Bill 1084 and other legislation dealing with schools.
|Heimel, Board Members Burgess, Michael Ransom|
House Bill 1084 passed the House on April 4 by a vote of 98 to 71, with Oconee County Rep. Houston Gaines and Rep. Marcus Wiedower voting with the Republican majority.
Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represents Oconee County, voted with the Republican majority in the Senate. The Bill passed in the Senate 32 to 21.
Gaines, Wiedower, and Cowsert are Republicans.
The bill says that “Each school and local school system may provide curricula or training programs that foster learning and workplace environments where all students, employees, and school community members are respected; provided, however, that any curriculum, classroom instruction, or mandatory training program, whether delivered or facilitated by school personnel or a third party engaged by a school or local school system, shall not advocate for divisive concepts.”
The legislation lists nine “divisive concepts,” including that the “United States of America is fundamentally racist,” that “An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race, bears individual responsibility for actions committed in the past by other individuals of the same race,” and “Any other form of race scapegoating or race stereotyping.”
Individuals are prohibiting from “Espousing personal political beliefs” which “means an individual, while performing official duties as part of his or her employment or engagement with a school or local school system, intentionally encouraging or attempting to persuade or indoctrinate a student, school community member, or other school personnel to agree with or advocate for such individual's personal beliefs concerning divisive concepts.”
The bill, in a last minute addition, also allows the Georgia High School Association to ban transgender boys and girls from playing on the public school sports teams that match their gender identity.
Other Education Legislation
The General Assembly also passed, and Gov. Kemp signed, Senate Bill 226, which requires local school boards to create a complaint resolution policy “to address complaints submitted by parents or permanent guardians alleging that material that is harmful to minors has been provided or is currently available to a student enrolled in the local school system.”
That bill passed the House 97 to 61 and the Senate 29 to 21. Gaines, Wiedower, and Cowsert all voted with the Republican majority.
Kemp also signed House Bill 517, which increases the cap on the state’s tax credit for donating money to nonprofit student scholarship organizations for K-12 students to attend a private school of their parent's choice.
Kemp also signed Senate Bill 588 dealing with public access to school board meetings. That bill passed the House 98 to 68 and the Senate 30 to 21, with Oconee County’s delegation voting with the Republican majority.
The bill repeats many of the current requirements of state law.
For example, it requires that “The local board of education shall provide a public comment period during such regular monthly meetings.”
It was during just such a period that Heimel made her comments.
Speaker On Accreditation
Heimel told the Board “I was actually going to make a presentation about the performance standards of our accrediting agency--what they implemented for July 1st, 2022.”
She said she changed her mind because of Kemp’s signing of the law.
Cognia has announced it will use new standards in 2022, but Heimel did not say what she objected to about those standards.
Given Kemp’s action, Heimel said, she would instead ask “has the county selected a new accreditation agency to accredit our schools and if so how are we going to make sure that CRT, equity, inclusion does not end up in our classrooms?
“Even though, right now, a lot of other systems are saying it's not happening in their schools as well as they're saying that here, how are we going to make sure that they're not--it's not going to be embedded in the curriculum even though it's not supposed to be so?”
Oconee Board of Education members almost never respond to questions posed, and they did not respond to Heimel at that point.
Heimel continued, saying “I guess I was wondering if the new accreditation board has been selected, and I think we have to have one by July 1.
“If I'm correct, and if not, if we haven't selected one already, I'm assuming you all select one, and is there any community involvement in that?” she continued.
Heimel stopped talking and just stood at the podium.
After a seven-second pause, Argo told her “I don’t have that answer.”
School Board Retreat
When Burgess asked Branch if the Board had not been given a presentation earlier on accrediting, he mentioned specifically Buck, who is about to step down as chief academic officer.
|Slides From Board Of Education Retreat|
In January, the Board of Education held a retreat in Barrow County that was not attended by any members of the public.
Buck did make a presentation to the Board that included a PowerPoint with 45 slides. I obtained these earlier via an open records request.
The 43rd and 44th slides in the presentation dealt with accreditation.
That second last slide lists Cognia and gave a time line indicating that the internal review would take place in the current and next academic year.
The OCS web site indicates that parents already have been invited to participate in a survey for Cognia as part of that review.
Cognia has been in the news recently after it reversed a decision it made regarding Cobb County Schools.
In a March 3, 2022, letter, it stated that it had made its initial decision on accreditation based on input from volunteers and had reversed the decision after a review by its staff.
Heimel was the second speaker from the public at the meeting on March 18.
|Campbell, Board Members Burgess, Ransom|
She was preceded by Mark Campbell, chair of the Oconee County Library Advisory Board.
“I don't need to tell you all that--y'all know that better than anybody else--as our community continues to grow because people want to live here, people want to be in Oconee County, that increases the demand both on the school system but also on the library system,” Campbell said.
“So we see ourselves as partners in that education to strengthen the community and also as partners to be able to serve the community, to make it the best community that it can be,” he continued.
David Lawrence followed Heimel and said he would love to answer the question “the young lady before me asked about teaching some of the hard history.”
Lawrence said he had taught in Oconee County Schools for nearly three decades and he “never knew what critical race theory was.”
“I don't have a clue how you teach history without bringing up some hard issues,” Lawrence said, “but you do it in a proper way.”
Lawrence then asked the Board to consider a proposal he put before it that would allow for pay raises for teachers as they move across their careers.
Liz Harlow, Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, in her Business Services Report to the Board at the April 18 meeting, said that collections of Education Local Option Sales Taxes (ELOST) in February were up by 16.2 percent over February of 2021.
|Lawrence, Board Members Burgess, Ransom|
Across the last 14 months, those tax revenues are, on average, 18.1 percent over the same month a year earlier, she reported.
As of March 31, the current ELOST account has $8.8 million in available funds, Harlow reported.
The ELOST VI account has an unspent balance of $40.3 million, according to the documents she gave the Board.
Oconee County Schools will not begin collecting ELOST VI taxes until the beginning of next year, though it already has spent $2.5 million for the Colham Ferry Elementary School addition, $0.9 million for the High Shoals Elementary School addition, and $2.7 million for the Dove Creek Middle School, according to Harlow’s report.
Total estimated costs of the projects are: $3.7 million, Colham Ferry; $3.2 million, High Shoals Elementary; and $39.6 million, Dove Creek.
Oconee County Schools has just less than $43 million in bond proceeds sold against anticipated tax revenue from ELOST VI, according to the documents Harlow gave to the Board.
At the end of the meeting on April 18, the Board voted to approve purchasing the Audio Enhancement System at Oconee County Primary School from Audio Enhancement for $188,232 and the Audio Enhancement System at Oconee County Elementary School from Audio Enhancement for $209,194.
These bids will be paid for using general and ELOST funds.
Oconee County Primary School and Oconee County Elementary School are undergoing renovation.
At the Board work session on April 11, Fred Ricketson, director of facilities for Oconee County Schools, said he expects the work at the schools will begin on May 25 and be completed by the start of the upcoming school year.
Ricketson also told the Board that work on the additions to Colham Ferry Elementary School and High Shoals Elementary School is on schedule but that construction at the new Dove Creek Middle School has been delayed because of rain.
The video linked below is on the web site of Oconee County Schools.
Oconee County Schools restricts who may embed the videos it produces.
As a result, the embed code I have used here produces the error shown. Simply click through to reach the video on the Oconee County Schools YouTube site.
The pictures above of Heimel, Campbell, and Lawrence are screen shots from the Oconee County Schools video.
Harlow began her report at 10:59 in the video.
Campbell began speaking at 15:16.
Heimel began speaking at 18:11 in the video.
Lawrence began his comments at 20:04.