Based on preliminary estimates, Oconee County’s new Dove Creek Middle School will open next year with 478 students, or less than half the 1,000 student capacity of the school.
Malcom Bridge Middle School is projected to have 611 students, and Oconee County Middle School is expected to have 844 students. Both schools also have a capacity of 1,000 students.
The figures are estimates, but they are the ones Oconee County School administrators used to create the redistricting plan for the new middle school for next year.
The Board received an update on that plan at its meeting on Monday and is scheduled to vote to adopt the plan at its regular meeting on Nov. 14.
It will be years before Dove Creek and Malcom Bridge middle schools reach even three-quarters of their capacity, based on data Oconee County Schools has filed with the State Department of Education.
Middle school enrollments across the system increased by one student from 2018 to 2019, declined by four from 2019 to 2020, declined by 11 from 2020 to 2021, and increased by 40 from 2021 to 2022.
If the preliminary estimates school administrators used in shaping the redistrict plan are correct, middle school enrollment will drop again next year.
At the Board meeting on Monday, Superintendent Jason Branch said that the redistricting plan initially presented to the Board on Sept. 12 had been discussed in a “listening session” and local school councils and there has been “lots of conversation...to get to this particular point.”
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Branch reminded the Board that the plan “is first and foremost done to populate Dove Creek Middle School. A brand new middle school will be taking place. And so that is the onus of the plan.”
“Once we decided in a strategic planning many years ago that our school sizes needed to be 750, 1,000, 1,500–at that point in time they were a decision made to build Dove Creek Elementary and now Dove Creek Middle School.”
Branch was referring to the goal for the county’s elementary schools to accommodate 750 students, for the middle schools to have a capacity of 1,000, and for the high schools a capacity of 1,500.
The only question asked of Branch following his presentation at the meeting on Monday was by Board Member Tim Burgess, who wanted to know when the school choice process would begin, allowing parents to select a school outside their district.
Branch said “within the next week” after the Board adopts the plan on Nov. 14.
Estimates Behind Redistricting
The projected enrollments used in the redistricting plan were not presented to the Board in a public meeting.
I filed an open records request for those numbers on Oct. 17.
“We are still in the process of finalizing our redistricting plans and we will not have official projections until that process is complete,” Dallas LeDuff, Associate Superintendent, responded later that day.
“I want the projections you are using at present,” I wrote back to LeDuff.
LeDuff provided those to me on Oct. 19.
The spreadsheet LeDuff attached to his response, under “FY 24 Draft” showed total middle school enrollment of 1,933 students.
The document shows the enrollment of 478 for Dove Creek, Middle School, 611 for Malcom Bridge Middle School, and 844 for Oconee County Middle School.
The redistricting plan before the Board leaves untouched the area serving Oconee County Middle School and splits into two parts the current service area of Malcom Bridge Middle School, with Dove Creek Middle School receiving the smaller number of students.
LeDuff Response To Projections
On Oct. 31, I sent LeDuff an email following up on the document he provided.
“Based on the information you have provided me here, OCS likely will open Dove Creek Middle School with fewer 500 students in a building with a capacity of 1,000 students,” I wrote.
“What kind of accommodation will be made for this fact?” I asked. “Will some of the classrooms remain unfurnished and unequipped until they are needed? Will part of the building be closed off? What other adaptations, if any, will be made?”
“Similarly, according to your estimates, Malcom Bridge Middle School will have about 600 students while the capacity of the building is 1,000,” I wrote.
“What kind of accommodation will be made for this fact?” I asked. “Will some of the space be closed off? Will any of the equipment or furnishings be transferred to Dove Creek Middle School? What other adaptations, if any, will be made?”
LeDuff responded on Nov. 2.
“We are working with the building level leaders to determine any needs they might have for next school year but we have not made any final decisions regarding your questions,” he wrote.
Question Of Argo
I told Board Chair Kim Argo in an email message on Nov. 8 that, based on data Oconee County School had filed with the state, middle school enrollments increased by one from 2018 to 2019, declined by four from 2019 to 2020, declined by 11 from 2020 to 2021, and increased by 40 from 2021 to 2022.
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“Has there been any discussion at the Board level over these last four years of delaying the construction and opening of the new Middle School?” I asked Argo.
“Those numbers don’t sound correct,” she responded. “I know Covid might have affected the numbers. The new middle school is needed.”
I then sent her the tabulated data for each of the two schools from 2018 to 2022.
“Our middle schools are built for capacity of 1000,” she wrote. “Malcolm Bridge is already over capacity.”
Argo did not asked Branch about the projections at the meeting on Monday.
No new projections were included in the materials released to the Board and public at the meeting.
Middle School Enrollments
School systems around the state are required to file a report on enrollments by school each October and again in March.
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I downloaded the October data for Oconee County Schools for each October going back to 1994, the earliest year available on the Georgia Department of Education site.
I focused on the October enrollments because Dove Creek Middle School is expected to open next academic year and the projections released to me by LeDuff are for the opening of the school.
The data show that the growth rate in middle school enrollments for the last 29 years (28 year-to-year comparisons) has been 2.5 percent. The average number of added students year-to-year has been 35.3
In the last five years, however, growth has been at only 1.4 percent, reflecting an average number of added students year-to-year of 26.6 students.
In the last four years, enrollment at the two middle schools has grown by only 26 students, or only 6.5 students per year.
Enrollments, as I had told Argo, dropped from 2019 to 2020 and from 2020 to 2021.
While these drops might have been affected by COVID, which hit in February of 2020, the largest decline occurred before COVID, from 2018 to 2019, when the number of added students declined from 107 to 1.
Middle School Enrollment Projections
If the projections Oconee County School administrators used in putting together the redistricting plan to be approved next week are correct, middle school enrollments will drop from 2,000 this academic year to 1,933 next year--a decline of 67 students.
Oconee County administrators didn’t offer any explanation for why they expect middle school enrollments to fall so sharply. The projections were not used in the presentations of the plan to the Board in September, and no Board member asked about them.
Based on the average over the last five years of 1.4 percent year-to-year growth, however, middle school enrollments can be expected to increase.
At that rate of growth, it will be 2030 when Oconee County Schools has enough students to populate each of the three middle schools with 750 students and 2051 before they reach capacity of 1,000 students.
If the growth rate of 2.5 percent (for the last 28 years) is used, it will be 2027 when there will be enough students to populate each of the middle schools with 750 students and 2039 when the three schools are at capacity.
Growth rates decline as the enrollment base increases, however, and the average number of added students year-to-year may produce the better estimate.
If the average addition of 26.6 students over the last five years is extended, Oconee County Schools will have enough middle school students to have about 750 students in each of the schools in 2031 and reach capacity in 2060.
If the addition of 35.25 students per year (average over the last 28 years) is used as the estimate, Oconee County Schools will have enough students for three middle schools at three-quarters of capacity in 2029 and reach capacity of 1,000 students per school in 2051.
School administrators must predict future enrollments based on data from the past and future estimates of such things as mortgage rate trends, housing growth, population growth, and social patterns.
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Enrollment grew by 1.3 percent last year across all of the 11 Oconee County schools combined, and the rate of growth has averaged 1.6 percent over the last four years.
Over the last 29 years, the average rate of growth has been 2.4 percent, though it was running above 3 percent from 2014 to 2018.
Based on data provided to the schools by the Oconee County Department of Planning and Code Enforcement, the number of new residential building permits issued in the county in 2021 was 187, the lowest number since 2012.
Those rates were highest in recent years from 2013 to 2018, when enrollment growth in Oconee County School also was at a high point.
The number of major subdivision lots in the county approved but for which a permit has not been issued is 3,141.
A majority of those are in the Oconee County High School/Oconee County Middle School District, not in the North Oconee High School/Malcom Bridge Middle School/Dove Creek Middle School District.
Oconee County Schools does accept students from outside the county.
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Based on a System of Residency Report Oconee County School filed with the Department of Education for the October enrollment, 56 of the students in the system this October did not live in Oconee County.
That includes seven students at Malcom Bridge Middle School and five at Oconee County Middle School.
Middle school enrollments this past October would have been 1,067 at Malcom Bridge Middle School and 921 at Oconee County Middle School has the non-resident students not been at the school.
The current Oconee County Schools Fiscal Year Budget includes $85,000 in tuition revenue.
New Schools Added
Oconee County Schools has added four new elementary schools since 1994, Dove Creek Elementary, High Shoals Elementary, Malcom Bridge Elementary, and Rocky Branch Elementary.
It also added one middle school and one high school.
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In 1996, Oconee County Middle School had 1,145 students, or 145 more than the current capacity goal of 1,000 students at a middle school.
Malcom Bridge Middle School opened in 1997, with 484 students. Oconee County Middle School had 728 students that year.
Oconee County High School had grown to 1,851 students in 2003, the year before North Oconee High School opened, or 351 more students than the current goal of 1,500 students per high school.
North Oconee High School opened in 2004 with 352 students.
It wasn’t until 2010 when the enrollments at the two schools were nearly equal, with 1,008 students at North Oconee High School and 1,006 at Oconee County High School.
In the October counts, Oconee Count High School has 1,251 students, and North Oconee High School has 1,479.
Oconee County Schools made public its plans to move forward with construction of the new middle school in early 2021.
The Board of Education, at Branch’s request, had decided on Dec. 14, 2020, to put renewal of the Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) on the ballot in Oconee County in a special election in March of 2021.
|Construction Update Dove Creek Middle School|
The current tax does not expire until the end of this year, meaning the renewal vote was far in advance of what was necessary.
By holding the election in March, Branch and the Board knew turnout would be light and focused entirely on the ELOST referendum.
The campaign that followed was channeled almost entirely through the school system itself, and it used the new middle school as the most prominent project to be funded by the continuation of the tax.
Turnout was only 6.1 percent.
Once voters approved the tax, with 83.6 percent voting yes, the Board moved forward with borrowing.
In May, the Board authorized the sale of $37.2 million in General Obligation Bonds for capital projects approved by voters in the ELOST referendum in March.
Follow To Vote
The $37.2 million in bonds that the Board authorized to be sold were dated for June 9, 2021, and began to bear interest from that date.
Oconee County Schools will not begin collecting tax from the Education Local Option Sales Tax approved by voters in March of 2021 until Jan. 1, 2023.
In December of 2021, drawing on those borrowed monies, the Board of Education awarded $34.4 million contract to Bowen and Watson Construction Company of Toccoa for construction of the new middle school.
The building is to contain 17 classrooms, seven science labs, and eight other labs or rooms.
It also includes a new football field.
The estimated total cost of the Dove Creek Middle School is $39.6 million, including furnishing and technology.
At a required public hearing in on a proposed 9.8 percent increase in property taxes for Oconee County Schools in August, Board Member Tim Burgess used those additional costs as a justification for the tax increase.
The Board ultimately compromised, and it unanimously approved a 4.7 percent tax increase instead.