Sunday, February 05, 2023

Oconee County’s Two High Schools Are Not At Capacity, But School Board Told To Plan For Additional Classrooms Or Third High School

***Message At Retreat***

Both of Oconee county’s high schools currently are under capacity.

School administrators are projecting, however, that North Oconee High School will be over capacity by eight students next year, while Oconee County High School will be over capacity in 2032.

In eleven years, by 2034, North Oconee High School will be 94 students over its capacity of 1,500 students, and Oconee County High School will be 99 students over its capacity of that same number, the administrators project.

It is time to make decisions about how to accommodate the roughly 200 students the existing two high school currently are not designed to accommodate, Superintendent Jason Branch and Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff told the Board of Education at its retreat last month.

The pair told the Board it has two options: add 25 classrooms at each school to increase the capacity of each school to 2,000 students, or build a new high school.

Branch told the Board he did not have comparative costs of the two options, but he said he would have that information before meeting with the community next fall to get feedback on whether it wants to increase capacity at the two schools or build a third high school.

Branch said he expects strong enrollment growth in the future and that the problem with adding capacity at the existing high schools is that it leaves unanswered what should be done when they reach 2,000 students.

An analysis of data submitted by Oconee County Schools to the state shows that growth in high school enrollments in Oconee County Schools has averaged 2.9 percent over the last 28 years and 1.9 percent over the last five years.

Based on the 1.9 percent growth rate, it would be 2043 before high school enrollments in Oconee County exceeded 4,000 students.

Construction Overview

LeDuff raised the issue of a new high school near the end of a roughly three-hour morning session of the Jan. 18 retreat held at the Club House of the Georgia Club, just across the county line in Barrow County.

Charts, Video Clip From Retreat
(Click To Enlarge)

LeDuff was joined by Fred Ricketson, Director of Facilities for Oconee County Schools.

Ricketson said construction on the $39.6 million Dove Creek Middle School in the far northwest of the county is on schedule for opening this summer. That construction will give the county three middle schools, each with a capacity of 1,000 students.

He said modifications to Oconee County Primary School, Oconee County Elementary School, and Oconee County High School also are on schedule for completion in July, in time for the new school year in August.

Ricketson said he expects the new Instructional Support Center on North Main Street in Watkinsville to be completed in June of 2024 and a 12-classroom addition to Malcom Bridge Elementary School to be completed in July of next year.

Renovations and modifications to Rocky Branch Elementary School are to be completed by July of 2025, he said.

Ricketson did not give cost estimates for the New Instructional Support Center, the classroom addition at Malcom Bridge Elementary School, or the renovations and modifications at Rocky Branch Elementary School, though these were presented to the Board at its retreat in January of last year.

I filed an open records request for the documents after last year’s January retreat and reported that they showed an estimated cost of $12.8 million for the Instructional Support Center, $6.2 million for the Malcom Bridge Elementary School classroom additions, and $2.7 million for Rocky Branch renovations.

High School Plans

“I’m going to fast forward now and start talking about high schools,” LeDuff said, after his discussion of the Instructional Support Center, Malcom Bridge Elementary School, and Rocky Branch Elementary School.

“As you all know, and we have reviewed, we recently constructed a new elementary school (Dove Creek Elementary), we’re finishing up a new middle school, so we’ve answered the questions in terms of population and growth in terms of elementary and middle school,” LeDuff said.

“What we do is next fall, we’ll start asking the question and seeking guidance from the community, what they would like to do with regards to the high school population,” LeDuff continued.

LeDuff presented the Board a chart showing that both of the county’s high schools currently have 78 Instructional Units.

At North Oconee High School, one of those is labeled as “excess.”

At Oconee County High School, which added 20 classrooms in 2018, 14 Instructional Units are labeled as “excess.”

Current capacity at each of the high schools is 1,500 students, LeDuff said, and by adding 25 classrooms at each school, capacity at each school would be increased to 2,000 students.

“That would take us from 78 classrooms to 103 classrooms at each high school,” LeDuff said.

Board Response

“So Dallas, when we have that strategic planning meeting with the community,” Board Chair Kim Argo said, “the question is, do you want your high schools that are currently at 1,500 to go to a capacity of 2,000 each?”

Ransom, Burgess (Left), LeDuff (Podium), Branch (Far Right)

“Or do you want to build a new high school?” she continued. “That’s the question, right?”

LeDuff said it was and that this was similar to what was done when Oconee County Schools set the standard of 1,000 students for the middle schools and 750 for the elementary schools.

Branch said Oconee County Schools has created news districts to accommodate the addition of the new middle and “We are very comfortable with the lines.”

“The next question is how do we address our high schools, which are reaching capacity, and what is the community feedback they want to provide,” Branch said.

“If you do an addition, the (district) lines aren’t impacted,” he said. “If you build a new school, the lines are impacted.”

“And then how long do you think you will be able to get if we get a capacity of 2,000 at the two different schools,” he added.

Board Member Tim Burgess asked Branch, if, by the fall, he would have “the estimated costs associated with those assumptions?” Branch shook he head yes.

Basis for Decision

LeDuff presented the Board with two bar charts, one for each of the high schools, showing the enrollments for 2021, 2022, and the current year, 2023, and projected enrollments through 2034.

The figures labeled as 2023 enrollments are based on the Oct. 2022 official count as filed with the Georgia Department of Education, for the first half of the 2023 school year.

Enrollment at North Oconee High School in the official count from October was down by 33 students from that same time last year and by four students from 2021.

LeDuff’s chart shows North Oconee High School enrollment growing to 1,508 next year and then to 1,594 by 2034.

Enrollment at Oconee County High School was 1,251 in October of last year, or 249 students below the capacity of the school.

LeDuff is projecting enrollment to increase to 1,282 next year and to 1,599 in 2034.

He is projecting the total high school enrollment to grow from 2,730 at present to 3,193 in 2034.

Basis Of Projections

LeDuff told the Board that the first three years of the projections were based on existing enrollments, but beyond 2026 the figures were “entirely projection” based on average growth over the last three years.

He noted that the charts show “ebb and flow” in recent years.

Alternative ways of calculating enrollment growth suggest the figures LeDuff used may be slightly conservative.

LeDuff said he also was considering data from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, which projects population for counties in the state.

That Office projected the population of Oconee County in 2022 at 42,478, for 2034 at 51,132, and for 2050 at 64,008.

The October enrollment for Oconee County Schools in October of 2022 was 8,531, or 20.1 percent of the county’s population. LeDuff said that figure can be used as a benchmark.

If that percentage holds, Oconee County Schools will increase in enrollment from 8,531 students at present to 10,635 in 2034 and 13,313 in 2050.

LeDuff did not do the next calculation, but if the current ratio of students holds, with 32.0 percent of the enrolled students in the two high schools, the total number of high school students would be 3,403 in 2034.

LeDuff’s chart projects high school enrollment in 2034 lower at 3,193.

Historical Pattern

Oconee County High School enrollments were growing at a high rate in the years from 1994, when the first data are available from the state Department of Education, until North Oconee High School was opened in 2004, at an average annual rate of 4.9 percent.

In the last five years, the average rate of increase has been only 1.9 percent

The percentages tell only part of the story, of course, as the base changes each year.

In those nine years leading up to the opening of North Oconee High School, Oconee County on average added 68.9 high school students.

In the last five years, Oconee County Schools had added, on average, 48.6 high school students each year.

That is based on the actual addition of 48 students in 2018, 26 in 2019, 108 in 2020, 89 in 2021, and minus 28 last year.

If that average addition is used as a projection, the number of high school students would be 3,407 in 2034, compared with LeDuff’s estimate in his charts of 3,193.

Using either of these two projection techniques, it would be 2043 before high school enrollments exceeded 4,000, or what two high schools at 2,000 students each could accommodate.

Construction Update

Ricketson presented two aerial photographs of construction at Dove Creek Middle School during the Jan. 18 retreat.

Dove Creek Photo From Retreat
 Picture Dated 1/12/2023

“This is the most exciting time in a building project,” Ricketson said. “Every time I go, every time I’m there, which is pretty often, there’s always something new.”

“Are we on schedule, ahead of schedule, where are we?” Board Member Michael Ransom asked.

“They are right on target,” Ricketson said.

He said he expect to be moving people into the building at the end of June and be ready for when school starts on Aug. 2.

“We’re struggling to get materials and the weather has been a challenge,” Ricketson said. “We’re making adjustments so they can move forward.”

Based on preliminary estimates, Dove Creek Middle School will open next year with 478 students, or less than half the 1,000 student capacity of the school. Ricketson did not indicate how that affects plans for opening the school.

Malcom Bridge Elementary School

LeDuff and Ricketson also presented an aerial view of the existing Malcom Bridge Elementary School with the 12-classroom addition shown as a separate building north of the four existing building making up the school.

Ricketson told the Board members they had not made an official decision on the project, but at the Jan. 9 Board meeting he had said he had construction plans in his hands and expected to advertise for bids that month.

At the Jan. 18 meeting, however, he said “If the Board is interested in pursuing that, we would put in our application to the state this summer, in July,” he said, “for funding in FY25.”

Slide From Retreat

According to the building schedule LeDuff used in his presentation, construction of the classroom additions at Malcom Bridge Elementary School is to be completed in July of 2024.

In the Construction Building Program for 2024 to 2026 that then Chief Operations Officer Brock Toole presented to the Board at its January 2022 retreat, posting of a request for proposals for the $6.2 million project was not scheduled until February of 2024, with completion in July of 2025.

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

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 sheet I obtained from Oconee County Schools in response to an open records request.

Instructional Support Center

Discussion of the construction of the Instructional Support Center was the final item in the presentation by LeDuff and Ricketson at the January retreat before they turned to the high schools.

LeDuff said the new plans had reduced the number of parking spaces in front of the building to 14 to meet requirement of the Watkinsville Mayor and Council

“I want to point out a few things with the design that were done intentionally with the building,” LeDuff told the Board, repeating much of what had been said when the Board was first presented with the design for the building in September of last year.

“Notice the smoke stacks on the top,” he said. “Those are decorative. But that is to honor the original Oconee County High School that was heated with a wood burning stove so it had smoke stacks.”

“The copula on the top of the building is also honoring the original Oconee County High School that had a copula before the school burned,” he said.

“I’d just like to share one thing about this design,” Ricketson added. “We’ve all seen decorative features like this and the smoke stacks become a maintenance problem.”

“The paint is peeling off, the wood is rotting. It looks horrible,” he said.

“The architect designed all of these things to have commercial maintenance free materials,” he said. “So we don’t have to worry about all of a sudden it looks bad. These are surfaces that have 25-year finishes on them so they will last for a long time.”


The Malcom Bridge Elementary School classroom additions and the Rocky Branch Elementary School construction will be the last of the nine construction items on the list that was presented to voters before they approved the March 2021 referendum for the current Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST).

The final item listed–but clearly not the final item in terms of priorities–was the Instructional Support Center.

The Board of Education voted to hold that ELOST referendum long before the ELOST in place at that time expired at the end of last year.

Collection of the 1 percent tax approved in 2021 only started on Jan. 1 of this year and will run for five years.

Soon after passage of the referendum, the Board voted to sell bonds to fund construction of the items on the list given to voters.

By moving forward with the projects on the ELOST list in 2021, the Board has the way for seeking voter approval for other construction projects, such as for a new high school or new classrooms at the two existing high schools.


Caitlin Farmer, a reporter for The Oconee Enterprise, attended the School Board retreat on Jan. 18 at the Georgia Club and wrote two stories covering the wide range of topics presented to the Board that day.

Farmer’s stories appeared at the bottom of the front page of the Jan. 26 edition of the Enterprise and at the top of page A3 of that edition of the paper.

The Board of Education did not record the meeting.

Farmer and I had agreed in advance that it would be helpful to the public and to me to have a video recording of the meeting.

I lent her a camera and tripod, and she placed it at the rear of the room, as allowed by Oconee County Schools.

The audio quality of the recording is poor because of the distance from the speaker, who was at a podium in the front of the room, and because of room noise.

In the afternoon, a tremendous amount of banging and other noise was coming from an adjoining room.

The first video below is of the morning session. I will upload the afternoon video with another story I will write.

Because of difficulty in getting the video situated correctly as the session began, some of the welcoming comments and initial comments of Susan Stancil, Chief Academic Officer for Oconee County Schools, were not recorded.

LeDuff began speaking at 1:32:29 in the video.

He began speaking about school academic facilities at 2:04:56 in the video.

He asked Ricketson, who reports to him, to join him, and Ricketson took over review of current construction, including at Dove Creek Middle School, at 2:10:36.

Discussion of the future plans for the high schools starts at 2:26:35.

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