Saturday, November 26, 2022

Oconee County School Board Approves Redistricting Plan For New Middle School, Citing Anticipated Enrollment Growth

***Citizen Asks For Review Of Substitute Teacher Policy***

The Oconee County Board of Education last week voted 4 to 0 to approve a redistricting plan to populate the new Dove Creek Middle School and make other adjustments at the elementary school level.

In announcing the approval of the plan, Dallas LeDuff, Associate Superintendent of Oconee County Schools, cited growth in enrollments since 2013 and the fact that Malcom Bridge Middle School currently is above the capacity of 1,000 students agreed to by the Board.

Board members praised the school staff for development of the plan in the discussion leading up to the voting, according to the minutes of the meeting.

Oconee County Schools stopped video recording the meeting before that discussion began, however, and the exact nature of the discussion is not recorded.

School administrators also stopped recording the Aug. 1 meeting before the Board voted to increase property taxes for the current year.

In other action at its regular meeting last week, the Board received without any comment, the usual seven financial updates from Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow.

It also heard a request from a former teacher at High Shoals Elementary School that it review school policy on when a teacher is eliminated from the list of available substitute teachers at a school.

As is usual, the Board did not respond to the request made of the Board.

Nature Of Growth

LeDuff, in his news release following the Board action, said “With 20.4 percent growth since 2013 and Malcom Bridge Middle School currently above building capacity, this plan will bring all schools within capacity and allow for future growth. 

Branch, Center With Board Members (L-R)
Wayne Bagley, Parrish, Tim Burgess,
Michael Ransom
Screen Shot 11/14/2022

The news release quotes Board Chair Kim Argo, who did not attend the meeting on Nov. 14, as saying “The Board is committed to meeting the current needs of our community, while also preparing for future growth.”

“The Board appreciates the public input we have received,” the quote from Argo continues, “and we believe the approved redistricting plan meets the needs of our growing community while causing the least amount of disruption for the families we serve.”

According to the official data for October enrollments filed by Oconee County Schools with the Georgia Department of Education, Oconee County Schools enrolled 1,676 middle school students in 2013, and 2,000 in 2022, or an increase of 324 students. That’s a growth rate of 19.4 percent.

In the 10 years since 2012, Oconee County middle school enrollments increased by 364 students, or a growth rate of 22.2 percent. In the last five years, however, Oconee County middle school enrollment increased by only 133 students, for a growth of 7.1 percent.

The average annual growth rate across the last 29 years for middle school enrollment at Oconee County Schools has been 2.5 percent. 

That annual average growth rate across those 29 years at the high school level has been 2.9 percent, and at the elementary school level, it has been 2.1 percent.

Across the whole system, the average annual growth rate going back to 1994 has been 2.4 percent.

Branch Report

Before the Board voted on the redistricting plan, Superintendent Jason Branch reviewed the time table that was followed in bringing the plan before the Board.

He reminded the Board that Brook Whitmire, Chief Human Resources Officer for Oconee County Schools, had presented a draft redistricting plan on Sept. 12.

“We listened to community input, both virtually and through online submissions, emails, public conversation,” Branch reported.

“We did have a public forum on Oct. 11,” he continued. “We listened, and then you received the final draft proposed attendance lines reviewed last week.” 

Branch said that no modifications were made to the boundaries for North Oconee High School or Oconee County High School.

The district line for Oconee County Middle School also was not changed.

Dove Creek Middle School will draw students from the current Malcom Bridge Middle School District.

According to data released by Oconee County Schools in response to an open records request I filed, the projected enrollment of Dove Creek Middle School when it opens next year will be 478 students. 

Malcom Bridge Middle School will have 611 students, down from its current 1,074, and Oconee County Middle School will have 844 students, down from its current 926, according to these projections.

Minutes Of Meeting

I did not attend the Nov. 14 meeting, and the video ends in the middle of a sentence as Branch was speaking but before the Board discussed and voted on the redistricting plan.

At the Aug. 1 meeting, the video also ended in mid sentence before the Board voted on the property tax rate for the current year. 

According to the published minutes of the Nov. 14 meeting, “a board member commented that this is the second time during his 10-year tenure that OCS, as a growing system, needed to redistrict students.“

“He said that he appreciated the time, effort and hard work of the superintendent and the Redistricting Committee,” according to the minutes.

“Another board member said that the Board asked the superintendent and Redistricting Committee to develop a plan that would have the least disruption to students.”

“He said that they did a great job and he wanted to extend his personal thanks to the superintendent and Redistricting Committee,” according to the minutes.

“Another board member thanked Dr. Branch for mentioning that 8 percent of students are affected by the Redistricting Plan,” according to the minutes.

“She recognized two parents that were in the audience that attended the Listening Session and thanked them for their patience during the redistricting process,” according to the minutes.

Board Vice Chair Amy Parrish ran the meeting in the absence of Argo, so, as the only other female member of the Board, this quote must have been from Parrish.

Financial Reports

Chief Financial Officer Harlow released reports to the Board showing that the cash balance in the General Fund in October was $28.5 million, down from $32.0 million in September.

She also reported that almost none of the ad valorem tax projected revenue had been received so far this year.

Property taxes are due in November.

Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) collections were up 17.8 percent in September compared with September of 2021. August collections had been up 15.2 percent from August of last year.

Total funds available in the current ELOST account are $13.7 million, with bond payments of $6.1 million upcoming this year, the final year of the tax.

The ELOST account for the new tax, which starts at the beginning of 2023, holds $34.2 million, with $43.0 million coming from bond sales, $4.9 million from state funding, and $6.6 million transferred from the General Fund.

So far, Oconee County Schools has spent $13.9 million of the projected final cost of $39.6 million for construction of the new Dove Creek Middle School.

Citizen Comment

David Lawrence, in an emotional presentation to the Board, first thanked the Board “for everything you continue to do to serve the students in this county.”

Scree Shot Lawrence (Right) Before Board 11/14/2022

Lawrence said retired after teaching 29 years in Oconee County Schools “with, as far as I know, an impeccable record--clean personnel file--as far as I know.”

Lawrence also said he had “hundreds of great memories made with students, their families, and many colleagues.”

“You can imagine my shock at hearing that I had been fired as a substitute teacher at the very school that I love the most,” Lawrence continued.

“Apparently I was fired almost a year ago,” he said. “I’ve never ever been terminated from any position.”

“The principal of the school has refused to explain my termination and suggested that I look for other schools where substitute teachers are needed. Apparently, in her words, I'm not even trusted on the campus.”

“I'm here to ask the Board to carefully examine this county's policy regarding the termination of substitute teachers,” Lawrence said.

Request Elaborated

“When a substitute teacher does not know, even that they have been terminated, or why he or she has been terminated, it leaves that employee to wonder,” Lawrence said. “To speculate, what in the world did I do?”

“It seems to me any termination of a sub would require at least one meeting with the building administrator and a representative from Human Resources,” Lawrence said.

“I have asked for that twice and have been refused,” Lawrence said. “In summary, I was fired from a school and a profession I dearly love without knowing why.”

“I was told I was neither trusted nor needed,” Lawrence continued. “I have asked to be reinstated as a substitute teacher at this school, but that hasn't happened.”

“I deserve better,” Lawrence said. “Any terminated employee deserves better. I'm not special. Any terminated substitute teacher deserves better.”

“Board members, please fix your termination protocol regarding substitute teachers,” Lawrence said. “If no questions, then I hope to hear from you in the near future.

No Board member responded to Lawrence, and he told me in an email on Nov. 26 that the Board “has not responded to my request to review the termination of subs protocol.”

“I am not allowed to substitute teach at High Shoals Elementary School, the last school where I taught for over a decade and the one I retired from after 29 years teaching in Oconee County,” he said in his email.


The video of the Board of Education meeting on Nov. 14 is on the YouTube Channel of Oconee County Schools.

The link below will lead to the video.

Lawrence began his comments at 19:22 in the video.

Branch began his introduction to the requested action on the redistricting plan at 24:26 in the video.

The video truncates in mid sentence at 27:03.

Oconee County Schools links to the video on its home page but does not indicate that the video is incomplete. 

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