Saturday, March 18, 2023

Oconee County Bus Drivers Tell School Board Their Concerns Are Not Being Heard

***Say Pay, Staffing Problems To Be Addressed***

Terry Radford, representing the bus drivers of Oconee County Schools, told the Board at its meeting on Monday that he was before them to talk about something he did not think they wanted to hear.

“We're the number one county in the state as far as the schools go,” Radford said, repeating a statement Superintendent Jason Branch makes often and made in his report to the Board at its work session a week earlier.

But in terms of pay for bus drivers and transportation staff, Radford said, “I think everybody that touches Oconee pays more.” The reference was to counties that surround Oconee.

Board Chair Kim Argo told Radford before he spoke that, based on Board policy, it was unlikely any member of the Board would respond to his comments, but she broke that habit after Radford spoke.

“I know we have several bus drivers in attendance,” she said. “I just want you to know we know our students begin their day and end their day with you, and you are appreciated. Each of you.”

She did not suggest any specific response to the pay and staffing complaints Radford had made to the Board.

In other action at the Monday meeting, the Board approved bids for construction of the new Instructional Support Center, for a 12-classroom addition to Malcom Bridge Elementary School, and for improvements to the gym at Oconee County Middle School.

The Board also received reports from Liz Harlow, Chief Financial Officer of the schools, and heard from another citizen, former teacher David Lawrence, who asked the Board to respond to a number of recent requests he had made of it.

Bus Driver Requests

Radford was the second citizen who used the Public Communication opportunity at the Board meeting on Monday, following Lawrence to the podium.

Radford Says Board Is Up Here
Screen Shot 3/13/2023

“I'm going to talk about a little dirty subject,” Radford warned the Board at the outset, “which is probably the school bus drivers.”

Radford said he was representing the drivers, who “want to bring a few things to your attention that you all need to be aware of that I think is extremely important and a big concern to them because I don't think their concerns are getting up to you.”

“I think you guys are here,” he said, raising both of his hand, “and they're down here.” He dropped his hand to the podium to make the contrast.

“As Oconee continues to grow rapidly and strives to remain the number one District in Georgia,” Radford said. “Oconee needs a pay scale change for bus drivers and staff in the Transportation Department.”

“The pay needs to be competitive with the surrounding districts,” he said, “which currently I think everybody that touches Oconee pays more.”

“We have 20-, 30-year veteran drivers that haven't had a pay increase in years because it's capped out by an older pay scale,” he said. “You have some new drivers starting out making more than others that have started out, which is a little unfair,” he continued.

Complaints About Staffing

Radford also had complaints about how the Transportation Department is staffed.

“When we use our transportation staff to drive bus routes,” Radford said, “there's no one in the office to answer the phones or to respond to emergencies.”

“That could happen while the bus drivers are out except for maybe one mechanic,” he continued. “This is a safety issue, and isn’t how transportation should be ran efficiently as we're constantly growing.”

“And honestly it's not fair to the staff when they're carrying more hats than they should,” he said.

“Also there's no incentive for bus drivers like it is for the teachers,” Radford said. He said teachers get pay increases when they get a commercial driver’s license and get paid when they go on field trips.

“We could put this toward the school driver's pay,” he said.

“Basically I just wanted to say I think that we need to take a look at that with what we've got going on in a growing county,” Radford said in ending his comments

“Thank you so much for your time,” he said. “But I think it's a dirty little secret that nobody's talking about.”

Argo’s Comment

Argo responded immediately, ending with “you are appreciated, each of you.”

Argo has been a strong supporter of the bus drivers, custodial staff and school nutrition workers, successfully arguing as the Fiscal Year 2022 budget was being prepared by Superintendent Branch that the budget needed to be modified to add additional pay for these workers.

At Argo’s request, Branch’s staff gathered school bus driver salary data from 10 surrounding school districts, showing that prior to that increase, Oconee County bus drivers with one year of experience ranked sixth, while those with 25 years of experience ranked ninth.

With the increase, the Oconee County drivers with one year of experience ranked third, while the drivers with 25 years of experience ranked sixth.

In September of last year, Brock Toole, then Chief Operations Officer for Oconee County Schools, said he was having difficulty hiring bus drivers.

He said at that time Oconee County Schools had 72 bus routes and probably will need to add eight or more new routes when Dove Creek Middle School opens next year.

Toole said he had 66 drivers at that time and needed to hire six more.

Lawrence Before Board

Lawrence told the Board as he began his comments that the “the main reason I’m live streaming of these meetings.”

“I'm hoping that you're considering that,” he said. “I love coming and seeing you all as much as you love to see me.”

“But I would really like to come to these about once every six months, just to check in, and watch from home,” he said. “So I hope that's what is being considered.”

Lawrence also said he was in discussion with Steven Colquitt, Director of Communications at Oconee County School, and Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff on several topics.

“If I send an email to everybody I try to CC everybody so that you're all in the know of what's going on,” Lawrence said. “I don't always get feedback.”

“I would like some way of knowing, ‘hey we're talking about this or we're not talking about this’,” he said.

Business Services

Liz Harlow, Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, presented eight reports to the Board at the meeting on Monday.

Harlow told the Board that the Cash Balance on Feb. 28 in the General Fund stood at $58.2 million, down from the $59.4 million she reported for Jan. 31.

Harlow’s Vendor Services Report included $1,200 for the Georgia Club. The Board held its off-site retreat at the clubhouse, located just across the county line in Barrow County.

Collection of the Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) in January was up 24.8 percent over January a year ago. Collection in December had been up 25.1 percent. December was the first full month of collection after Costco opened.

Harlow reported that the budget for the now complete ELOST V shows $10.4 million in unspent funds and that all bond payments have now been made.

Oconee County Schools has spent $25.1 million from the current ELOST VI account for Dove Creek Middle School and anticipates total cost to be $39.6 million, according to the report.

The system sold just less than $43 million in bonds to cover costs of this and other construction projects pending receipt of funds from the tax collection over the next five years.

Harlow also presented a total compensation statement for a teacher with a master’s degree and 15 years of experience. That teacher would receive a salary of $65,297, Harlow said, and an additional $27,911 in employer paid benefits.

Board Response

Board Member Ryan Hammock said to Harlow that there have been a lot of news reports about failed banks.

“Are we fully FDIC covered?” he asked, referring to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. “And if not, are our deposits collateralized to protect the system in the event of a bank failure?”

“All of our deposits are either FDIC insured or collateralized at 110 percent,” Harlow responded.

Public deposits are collateralized through the pledging of appropriate securities or other instruments.

“I noticed on our last report to this point our interest earnings are up substantially,” Board Member Tim Burgess said to Harlow. “Is that due to just interest rates being higher and us benefitting by that, or just you being good picking stocks?”

“The interest rates are higher,” Harlow responded. “But we're also doing our due diligence to put those funds in financial institutions that are giving us a greater return.”

Harlow also told Burgess that all of the bond indebtedness for ELOST V has been satisfied.

Action Items

Near the end of the meeting, Superintendent Branch presented his list of items for which Board action was required.

Board Votes To Approve Bid For Instructional Support Center
Screen Shot 3/13/2023

Included was a $14.5 million bid for the new Instructional Support Center in Watkinsville, $4.5 million bid for the 12-classroom addition to Malcom Bridge Elementary School, and a $72,621 bid for improvements to the Oconee County Middle School basketball facility.

Fred Ricketson, Director of Facilities for the school system, had presented these bids to the Board at its work session on March 6, but there had been no discussion of the costs.

The recommended bid for the Instructional Support Center is $6.2 million more than the estimated cost of the facility in 2019 and $1.8 million more than the cost estimate given to the Board in January of 2022.

The Malcom Bridge Elementary School bid is $1.4 million more than estimated in 2019 but $1.6 million less than was projected to the Board at its retreat in January of 2022.

Board Questions

When Argo called for a vote on the Malcolm Bridge Elementary School addition, Board Member Michael Ransom said “I have a quick question about that.”

“I think I know the answer, but I want to ask Fred what the rising cost is from 2020 to now,” he said, referring to Ricketson. “Why is there a difference in the original estimation?”.

“You know, in the past few years we've experienced unprecedented supply chain issues, labor shortages, and the price increases have absolutely been reflective of that,” Ricketson said. “I haven't seen it before in my career.”

“So I guess I interpret what you're saying, Fred,” Burgess said, “is it again in the current climate and the inflationary and other supply chain issues and all the other disruptions that we--everybody's--had to deal with for the last 24, 36 months, any estimate that was made two years ago is by its very nature going to be much much higher now than it was two years ago or three years ago because of all those issues?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Ricketson replied.

“So to buy, to construct anything that we would have estimated three years ago, it's going to be higher today?” Burgess asked.

Again, Ricketson replied in the affirmative.

Branch also told Hammock that the bid for the construction of the Instructional Support Center was at a fixed price and would not increase unless the Board asked for changes in the project.

Funding Sources

Branch told the Board that the Instructional Support Center, the Malcom Bridge Element School additions, and the basketball facility improvements at Oconee County Middle School will be paid for with General Fund and ELOST monies.

None of the Board members asked for any details on that funding.

The Instructional Support Center and the Malcom Bridge Elementary School additions were listed projects to be funded by ELOST VI when voters approved that tax in March of 2021.

In her report to the Board on Monday, Harlow listed $6.6 million in General Funds in the ELOST VI account, with $4.9 million in approved state funding, and $.6 million in interest income, for total, with the $43 million in bond sales, of just more than $56 million.

The report shows $46.6 million committed against that amount for Colham Ferry Elementary School addition, the High Shoals Elementary School addition, and the new Dove Creek Middle School.

The Board voted 5 to 0 in favor of each of the bids.

Board Recognition

As is usually the case at regular Board meetings, the bulk of the time is devoted to recognitions.

Board Being Congratulated
Screen Shot 3/13/2023

As the Board was called forward by Director of Communications Colquitt on Monday, he said “First I'd like to mention that School Board Appreciation Week in Georgia began today and continues through Friday.”

“Board members, when he came in this evening you had several tokens of appreciation donated by our schools,” he said.

“We thank you for your dedication to Excellence in our schools, our students, faculty, staff, and Community,” he continued. “We are better because of the work that you do. Thank you.”

The Board recognized State Champion at Oconee County High School Caroline Stamps and Coach Emily Elmore as well as Freestyle State Champion from Oconee County High School Simon Casey and Coach Emily Elmore.

The Board also recognized the All-State Chorus awardee Keira Moore at Oconee County High School and Chorus Director Katie Williams and the All-State Band awardees Levi Martin, Josiah Owens, Micah Taylor, Dennis Todic, and Band Director John Cotton from Oconee County Middle School.

Called Meeting

At 4 p.m. on Friday, Zoe Gattie, Executive Assistant to Superintendent Branch, announced via email that the Board of Education will hold a Special Session at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 21, at the Central Office Meeting Room, 34 School Street, in Watkinsville.

According to the released agenda, the Board will approve the agenda and then go into executive session.

When it is back in open session, according to the agenda, it will address a single item: Student Disciplinary Hearing.

No other details on the meeting are available.


The video below is on the Oconee County Schools YouTube channel.

Colquitt began the recognitions section of the meeting at 1:07 in the video.

Harlow began speaking a 21:11 in the video.

Lawrence made his comments after being introduced by Argo at 25:01 in the video.

Rayford began his comments to the Board at 28:40 in the video.

Branch presented the Board with the action items at 32:19 in the video.

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