Jeff Wilkes, having been unsuccessful in his attempt to get the Oconee County Board of Education to discuss his proposal for incorporating religious instruction into the school day, says he will next make a direct appeal to the Board at its April 17 meeting.
Wilkes said he expects others from the seven-member local steering committee championing the request to join him.
Wilkes met with Board of Education Chair Kim Argo and Oconee County Schools Superintendent Jason Branch on March 13, and Argo informed Wilkes in an email on March 21 that she would not put his request on the Board agenda for discussion.
In an email on March 27, Argo did invite Wilkes to attend a future Board meeting, saying “you will be allotted three minutes to speak.”
The Board of Education next meets April 10, but it is a work session, and the Board allows public comment only at regular meetings. The next such meeting is on April 17.
March 13 Meeting
At that March 13 meeting with Argo and Branch, Wilkes was the designated representative of the local steering committee that is asking Oconee County Schools to allow K to 5 students to leave their campuses during regular school hours for Bible-based instruction.
|Argo Official Photo|
Wilkes provided Argo with a packet at that meeting that included materials from LifeWise Academy, an Ohio-based group that has developed a curriculum and operational procedures that is says are used in about 60 school districts, mostly in Ohio.
In the March 21 email to Wilkes, Argo said she “shared the packets and the information that you discussed with us” at the March 13 meeting.
“The school board is not interested in pursuing a Lifewise class during the school day at this time,” she wrote.
Argo did not indicate when or how she “shared” the information with the other Board members, but the Board had its regular March meeting that evening.
In an email message on March 30, Brook Whitmire, Chief Human Resources Officer for Oconee County Schools, said that Argo gave the materials to the Board “when the Board met” that day.
March 27 Email
Wilkes sent an email to Argo on March 24 saying “I would love the opportunity to present and answer questions from you and your board.”
“I see your next work session is April 10 and would be happy to make myself available to you,” Wilkes continued. The April 10 meeting is a work session, and public comment is not allowed. The Board is not meeting today (April 3) because of Spring Break.
“Would you be open to the conversation?” Wilkes asked.
In her March 27 follow-up email to Wilkes, Argo attached the School Board Policy on Board Meeting Agendas.
“The inclusion of items suggested by staff members, students, or citizens shall be at the discretion of the board chairperson and the superintendent,” that policy reads.
“Following individual discussions with members of the Board,” Argo wrote to Wilkes on March 27, “we do not feel this is an agenda item at this time.”
“As shared earlier, however, you as an Oconee County resident are welcome to address the board during the public comment slot,” she wrote. “Simply sign in prior to the meeting and you will be allotted three minutes to speak.”
I obtained this correspondence between Wilkes and Argo through an Open Records request I filed with Oconee County Schools early on March 27.
Issue Of Residence
Oconee County Schools only allows Oconee County residents to speak at its meetings.
|Branch Official Photo|
The issue of residence came up in the meeting that Wilkes had with Branch and Argo on March 13. The meeting was at Branch’s office, 34 School Street, in Watkinsville.
Wilkes told me in a telephone conversation on March 30 that he had set up the meeting with Branch and had wanted to bring along a representative from LifeWise.
“Dr. Branch was very clear that he made the meeting with me and that he would only meet with me,” Wilkes said. “And that the LifeWise Academy representative would not be allowed to attend.”
“Then when I showed up it wasn’t just me and him,” Wilkes said. “It was me and him and Ms. Argo, which I didn’t mind at all."
“Ms. Argo was one of my school teachers,” Wilkes said. “I have a very high respect for Ms. Argo and Dr. Branch as well.”
Slightly Different Recounting
Because Wilkes quoted Branch, and an open records request I filed produced no record of the exchange between Branch and Wilkes, I asked Steven Colquitt, Director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, in an email message on March 30, to confirm that Branch had told Wilkes that he would not meet with a representative of LifeWise.
Colquitt wrote back to me on March 31.
“As a community member, Mr. Wilkes requested a meeting with Dr. Branch and Ms. Argo to discuss Christian education,” Colquitt wrote.
“After the meeting had been arranged, Mr. Wilkes asked to add a representative from LifeWise Academy,” Colquitt continued. “That request was denied as Dr. Branch and Ms. Argo had not agreed to meet with a vendor.”
What Wilkes Requested
Wilkes said the purpose of his meeting was to get Branch or Argo to agree to sign a School Acknowledgment addressed to LifeWise Academy saying they had reviewed the LifeWise launch plan.
|Requested LifeWise Agreement|
“Seeing that LifeWise Academy meets the federal released time religious instruction requirements of operating off school property, without the use of public fund and with parental permission, we accept your plan,” the statement reads.
In his email to Argo and Branch on March 14, following their meeting, Wilkes wrote that “after you have given written school acknowledgment, our team can start the process of hiring a local director and teachers.”
“The local director will be your point of contact from that point forward,” he wrote.
Wilkes said in the email that he was “very interested” in being the LifeWise director for Oconee County Schools.
In January of this year, Julie Mauck announced an organizational meeting for a local LifeWise initiative on Oconee County 411 (GA), the popular Facebook Group she moderates.
Mauck also is Chapter Chair, Moms for Liberty--Oconee County and ran unsuccessfully last year for the Republican Party nomination for Post 3 on the Board of Education.
The meeting Mauck announced took place at Mars Hill Baptist Church, 2661 Mars Hill Road, on Jan. 19.
The Oconee County Board of Education turned down a request by the Oconee County Christian Learning Center in September of 2016 for a released time program for Bible instruction.
Mauck said in January that the proposed LifeWise program would be different from what was rejected in 2016 in that it would involve only K to 5 students and will not involve dual enrollment or other transcript credit hours.
“They do this during the time of the day that children are not actually missing academic programs,” Mauck said.
“They actually will find a location in a church, or somewhere off a church property, buy a building,” she continued.
“They have buses that will transport the children, during a special time, like art, physical education, whatever the school is able to work with us on,” she said.
Wilkes On March 13 Meeting
Wilkes said the strategy of approaching the superintendent first came from LifeWise.
|Mauck At Mars Hill Baptist Church 1/19/2023|
“The meeting purpose was to explain to them what LifeWise Academy is and how it operates,” Wilkes said. “Our goal is, we have to have, from either the superintendent, which is normally who does that in most cases, or the School Board, written approval to proceed forward with the next steps that we need to do to get the Academy up and running.”
“It really is not saying we’re going forward with it and putting it in schools yet,” he said. "It’s just saying that yes, we’re interested. We would like to make the next step–move forward.”
Wilkes said he wanted LifeWise Launch Coach Liz Hultz to be at the meeting with him because she “knows a whole lot more about LifeWise academy than I do.”
If Branch or Argo would not sign the sample form provided by LifeWise, Wilkes said, “my goal was would you please go and share this with your Board. And I asked in a second email, can I attend your next session.”
“My hope was that they would all look at the information and let me come back in and talk to them and answer any questions and hope that we could get in on the agenda if not the next Board meeting, then one of the following Board meetings.”
Packet Of Materials
When I spoke with Wilkes, he told me he had given a packet of materials to Argo and Branch for distribution to the Board.
I asked for a copy of those materials, but he said he had not saved a copy for himself.
He suggested I contact Hultz from LifeWise in Ohio.
When I did contact Hultz by telephone on March 30, she said “I need to direct you to our press person because I have been advised always as a launch coach to always go ahead and send you to the right person that can answer the questions.”
When I did reach someone from that office by telephone, he told me that he didn’t have a specific packet but it would have been constructed from materials on the LifeWise web site.
On March 31, I contacted Mauck, asking her for the information in the packet.
Earlier that day, Mauck had sent me a list of the members of the Steering Committee, identifying herself as one of those on the Committee.
She said she was withholding some of the information she provided the Board to protect the privacy of some of those who had offered support, but she did provide some materials that are on the LifeWise web site.
My Open Records Request
I didn’t know about the packet Wilkes gave Branch and Argo when I filed my open records request on the morning of March 27 but I asked for:
1. All correspondence electronic or otherwise between Julie Mauck and Dr. Jason Branch from Jan. 1, 2023, until this date regarding Release Time Religious Instruction.
2. All correspondence electronic or otherwise between Julie Mauck and Board of Education Chair Kim Argo from Jan. 1, 2023, until this date regarding Release Time Religious Instruction.
3. All correspondence electronic or otherwise between Jeff Wilkes of LifeWise and Dr. Jason Branch from Jan. 1, 2023, until this date regarding Release Time Religious Instruction.
4. All correspondence electronic or otherwise between Jeff Wilkes of LifeWise and Board of Education Chair Kim Argo from Jan. 1, 2023, until this date regarding Release Time Religious Instruction.
5. All correspondence between Dr. Jason Branch and other members of the Board of Education from Jan. 1, 2023, until this date regarding Release Time Religious Instruction.
6. All correspondence between Board of Education Chair Kim Argo and other members of the Board of Education from Jan. 1, 2023, until this date regarding Release Time
Response Of Oconee County Schools
I received a reply to the email late in the day on March 29 from Whitmire, Chief Human Resources Officer for Oconee County Schools, who also serves as open records officer for the system.
|Scan Of Documents Provided To Board 3/13/2023|
The reply contained only the email from Wilkes to Branch and Argo thanking them for meeting with him on March 13, Argo’s March 21 reply to that email from Wilkes, Wilkes reply to Argo of March 24, and Argo’s reply to Wilkes on March 27.
On March 30, I sent another email to Whitmire.
“After I reread the materials you sent me, I realized that you, I think inadvertently, did not include an item referenced in an email from Kim Argo to Jeff Wilkes on March 21, 2023. She said she ‘shared the packets and information that you discussed with us,’ presumably with the school board (referenced in the next line).”
“Could you please send me the ‘packets and information’ Kim sent to the other Board members? This should have been covered in my open records request, which asked for:
“6. All correspondence between Board of Education Chair Kim Argo and other members of the Board of Education from Jan. 1, 2023, until this date regarding Release Time Religious Instruction.”
Whitmire’s First Reply
Whitmire wrote back later that day:
“You have received all documents responsive to the parameters of your request, including correspondence you described in #6. The packets you reference were provided by Mr. Wilkes to Mrs. Argo, but she did not send them to fellow board members as correspondence, i.e., letter or email/attachment.”
“Mr. Wilkes provided the packets in hard-copy form to Mrs. Argo in a meeting she and Dr. Branch had with him on March 13, and per Mr. Wilkes’ request she passed the packets along to board members later that same day when the board met,” Whitmire wrote.
I sent an email back on March 31, saying:
“I still have not been able to run down the packets, so I'm changing my open records request.”
“I am asking for all correspondence and all materials exchanged between Board of Education Chair Kim Argo and other members of the Board of Education from Jan. 1, 2023, until this date regarding Release Time Religious Instruction.”
“I am seeking, in addition to any other materials exchanged, the packets that Mr. Wilkes asked Ms. Argo to provide to the Board and which she passed to the Board members on March 13.”
Whitmire’s Second Reply
On Monday (April 3), Whitmire sent me scanned copies of the materials from the packet.
Included was a sheet with 131 names and email addresses, identified as a “Community Interest List,” 13 pages from the LifeWise web site, and a Certificate of Liability Insurance for LifeWise Academy.
The copied materials also included what was presented as a signed School Acknowledgment from Superintendent Marc Feuerback of the Cartersville School System in Cartersville, in Bartow County east of Rome.
Whitmire said he was unable to scan “a small Lifewise Academy informational pamphlet that was included in the literature provided to the BOE.”
He said the unscanned pamphlet would be made available to me at the central office when schools reopen on April 10.
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