Monday, January 16, 2023

Weather Has Created Problems For Dove Creek Middle School Construction, Oconee School Board Told

***Board Also Told All Schools Under Capacity***

Fred Ricketson, Director of Facilities for Oconee County Schools, didn’t sound the alarm at the first meeting of the year of the Oconee County Board of Education.

But he did tell the Board that the weather has caused delays in construction of the system’s new Dove Creek Middle School, planned to open for the next academic year, and that “dry warm weather will do us a lot of favors.”

Ricketson’s report was one of many to the Board on Monday, which merged the usual work and regular sessions of the Board into the single meeting for the month.

Dallas LeDuff, Associate Superintendent for Oconee County Schools, told the Board that the expectation is that every one of the system’s 12 schools will be operating under capacity next year, so parents submitting an application for school choice will be notified that the request will be granted.

Ricketson also told the Board that construction documents are nearly complete for the 12-classroom addition to Malcom Bridge Elementary School and that he expects to ask the Board to approve contracts for that and the new Instruction Support Center construction in March.

The meeting began with returning Post 2 Board Member Amy Parrish and new Post 3 Board Member Ryan Hammock being sworn in and ended with Parrish being re-elected Board vice chair and Post 4 Board Member Tim Burgess being elected legislative liaison.

The Board did not discuss the revisions to homestead property tax exemptions being requested of legislators by the county Board of Commissioners, and neither the Board nor Oconee County School administrators have communicated formally with legislative leaders about that request.

Oconee County Schools announced late on Friday that the Board will meet on Wednesday in its day-long annual retreat just across the county line in Barrow County, where administrators are expected to update the Board in more detail about construction and other school plans.

Swearing In And Elections

Probate Court Judge Mike Hunsinger administered the oath of office to Parrish and Hammock at the beginning of the meeting, giving the Board a legal quorum.

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Parrish, Hammock 1/9/2023

Board Member Burgess did not attend the meeting.

As is usually the case, the Board devoted much of the meeting to recognitions.

The board recognized Oconee County High School 3A Boys Cross Country State Champions: Aaron Brodrick, Cooper Timberman, Patterson Graham, Andrew Knapp, Noah Scheuer, Champ Blose, and Spencer Hostetter, and alternates Shannon Dickert, Brennan Mullis, and Jacob Thornton, as well as coaches Jake Forrester, James Norton, and Kendra Houghton.

The Board also recognized Oconee County High School 3A Girls Cross Country State Runner-ups: Emma Champer, Molly Meeks, Leah John, Ellen Patterson, Mary Matthews, Elzie Baker, and Cadence Keese, as well as alternates Leslie Sherard, Allie Parsons, and Bri Nilsson, and coaches Jake Forrester, James Norton, and Kendra Houghton.

The Board also recognized Community Partner, Oconee State Bank. Philip Bernardi, Executive Vice President and Chief Banking Officer, accepted the award on behalf of the bank.

Oconee County High School Principal Kevin Yancey and students Alyssa Haag, Zaniya Griffin, and Samuel Rue told the Board about accomplishments at the school.

Staff Reports

Susan Stancil, Chief Academic Officer for Oconee County Schools, updated the Board on the Cognia Accreditation process, saying “we have successfully submitted all of our documentation into the Cognia platform.”

Screen Shot
Stancil Off Camera At Podium 1/9/2023

Stancil said that she and Superintendent Jason Branch “will be meeting with our lead evaluator in the next few weeks, and then we should receive our final feedback in the next 30 days.”

“I will then provide another update to you guys once we get our final record,” she added.

Ryan White, Chief Technology Officer, said it was the superintendent’s recommendation that the Board approve a $1.6 million bid from Virtucom for 3,651 HP G9 Chromebooks and 148 HP X360 touchscreen Chromebooks.

White said Branch also was recommending approval of another bid from Virtucom of $106,657 for 3,816 student Chromebook warranties and a bid from Bytespeed of $156,480 for 192 desktop computers.

At the end of the meeting, the Board approved all of these bids, with funding to come from the Educational Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) revenue and from the Oconee County Schools General Fund.

“I'd also like to add that while we are building Dove Creek Middle,” White said, “we are expecting 75,000 feet of network cable to be delivered this week to begin installation, which is roughly 15 miles.”

Business Services

Liz Harlow, Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, presented the usual string of financial reports to the Board, none of which produced any questions or comment.

The Cash Balance Report for December lists $58.2 million in the Oconee County Schools General Fund, down from $60.0 million in November.

The Budget Report for December lists $35.1 million in ad valorem taxes received, or 85.0 percent of the projected amount. Those figures are unchanged from November.

“Revenues and expenditures are tracking where we would expect halfway through the year,” Harlow said.

ELOST revenue in November was up 13.8 percent from November of last year.

With one month remaining on the current ELOST, $15.4 million in unspent revenue is in the account. A final bond payment of $6.1 million is due this year.

Associate Superintendent Report

Associate Superintendent LeDuff reminded the Board that Oconee County Schools students are allowed to transfer to another Oconee County School if that school is under capacity.

Applications are due on Jan. 20, and LeDuff said that 194 applications had been received to date. Parents must provide their own transportation if the student transfers to a different school.

“Every school is on the list” of available schools, LeDuff said, “and we will mail communication to everybody who's applied for school choice no later than January 27 of this month to inform them that that application was accepted.”

Director of Facilities Ricketson reports to LeDuff, and he followed LeDuff and gave the update to the Board on constructions projects underway and planned.

“We are hoping for a dry warm winter,” Ricketson said in his update on construction of the Dove Creek Middle School on Hog Mountain Road in the far northwest of the county near the Barrow County line. “We've got a lot of work to do.”

“They've been roughing in air conditioning, plumbing, electrical, and moving along quite quickly,” he said. “And we even have finished coats of paint in the downstairs.”

“You'll be noticing brick going up in the coming weeks, and plastic going over the window so they can start turning on temporary heat and start getting finishes into the building.”

“But dry warm weather will do us a lot of favors,” he added.

Instructional Support Center, Malcom Bridge Elementary

Ricketson told the Board that Oconee County Schools will be before the Watkinsville City Council on Wednesday (Jan. 18) for the land disturbance and sewage capacity permits it needs before it can request bids for the new Instructional Support Center planned for North Main Street in Watkinsville.

“After that, we'll be clear through the city to move forward,” Ricketson said. “We hope to advertise that for proposals by the end of this month,” he added.

Ricketson did not mention that Watkinsville turned down the request for two-rows of parking in front of the new building, forcing Oconee County Schools to resubmit plans for more limited parking.

No one from the Board asked any questions in response to Ricketson’s update.

“Lastly Malcolm Bridge Elementary School,” Ricketson said. “I received a 99 percent construction document today. They've been reviewed by the DOE and are in the fire marshal’s hands for review now.” DOE is for Department of Education.

“Again, we hope to advertise that by the end of this month,” Ricketson said, “with the hope of bringing both the Instructional Support Center and Malcom Bridge Elementary to you all in March for approval.”

Malcom Bridge Elementary

Ricketson provided no detail of the plans for Malcom Bridge Elementary School construction, and no one asked at the meeting on Monday.

Screen Shot
LeDuff Just Visible At Podium 1/9/2023

At the January 2022 retreat, documents I obtained via an open records request show plans for the addition of 12 classrooms at the school.

The 2019 estimate of the cost of the project was $3.1 million, but that figure had grown to $6.2 million by a year ago.

Estimated completion was July of 2025, with a request for proposals not going out until February of 2024.

The current capacity of Malcom Bridge Elementary School is 600, and the goal has been to increase elementary school capacity to 750 students.

Enrollment Data

According to the official Oct. 4, 2022, enrollment report filed by Oconee County Schools with the Georgia Department of Education, Malcom Bridge Elementary School had only 401 students enrolled on that date.

The redistricting plan approved by the Board will move some students from the new Dove Creek Elementary School, which had 668 students in October of last year (with a capacity of 750) to Malcom Bridge Elementary School.

The projected enrollments for next year based on the redistricting plan are 603 at Malcom Bridge Elementary School and 520 at Dove Creek Elementary School, as shown on a chart I obtained from Oconee County Schools in response to an open records request.

Elementary school enrollment in Oconee County Schools has grown by an annual average of 2.1 percent over the last 28 years, though it has grown by an average of 2.3 percent over the last five years, according to official enrollment records I downloaded from the Department of Education.

Homestead Exemptions

Oconee County commissioners passed a resolution on Jan. 3 calling on the county’s state legislative delegation to introduce legislation in the General Assembly this year to increase the homestead property tax exemption and freeze property tax assessments for persons once they turn 65 years of age.

The changes in the property taxes would reduce county and school revenue, and Board of Education Chair Kim Argo said after the county commissioners passed the resolution that the School Board does not intend to pass a resolution making the request of the legislators but it supports the changes proposed by the county.

No mention was made at the School Board meeting on Monday of the resolution passed by the Board of Commissioners a week earlier, not even when Burgess was selected in absentia as the liaison between the School Board and the legislative delegation.

I filed an open records request on Wednesday (Jan. 11), asking for copies of “all correspondence, electronic or otherwise, between Superintendent Dr. Jason Branch or members of his administrative staff and Rep. Houston Gaines, Rep. Marcus Wiedower, or Sen. Bill Cowsert from Nov. 1, 2022, through today.”

I made a similar request for correspondence from members of the Board of Education.

Legislative Breakfast

I received a reply on Friday (Jan. 13) that did not include any correspondence regarding the proposed homestead exemptions.

I did receive correspondence regarding email invitations sent to Wiedower and Cowsert for a Dec. 15, 2022, “Legislative Breakfast” with the School Board at the Central Office, 34 School Street.

Wiedower indicated he planned to attend, and it is possible that discussion of the homestead exemption came up there.

No record of an agenda for the meeting or of minutes of the meeting appear on the Oconee County Schools web site, though the state’s Open Meetings Law would seem to require one.


The retreat scheduled for Wednesday is not listed on the 2022-2023 Schedule of Board of Education meetings, though it is a regular event.

Oconee County Schools put a notice of the meeting on its web page on Friday.

The agenda on the web site lists only four items, Call To Order, Agenda Approval, Presentation and Discussion Items, and Adjournment.

The meeting will be held in the Club House of the Georgia Club, as has been the case in recent years.

The address is 1050 Chancellors Drive. No room number is specified in the announcement of the meeting.

Oconee County Schools does not need to go outside the county for the meeting.

It is a co-owner with the county of the Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road, adjoining Oconee County High School, and has scheduling priority for the facility.

The Civic Center was constructed to provide space for school and county events.


The video link below is to the YouTube Channel of Oconee County Schools. (Oconee County Schools sometimes blocks me from embedding the video. If that is the case, click on the link to go to the Oconee County Schools YouTube site.)

No citizen spoke at the meeting.

The camera did not show the full podium and excludes most of the speakers.

The swearing in of Parrish and Hammock is at 0:51 in the video.

Recognitions begin at 9:21 in the video.

Stancil began speaking at 25:55 in the video.

White began speaking at 26:55.

Harlow began speaking at 28:49.

LeDuff came to the podium at 30:26.

Ricketson began his comments at 32:54.

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