All six members of the local steering committee asking Oconee County Schools to set aside an hour in the school day for independent, off-campus religious instruction appeared before the Oconee County Board of Education on Monday.
They offered consistent but somewhat different arguments for putting the issue on the agenda for future discussion by the Board or simply for adopting the plan and Bible-based curriculum developed by LifeWise, an organization in Ohio.
One of those steering committee members and three others who appeared before the Board asked that a school safety officer be placed in each of the school system's soon to be 12 schools.
No one spoke against the school safety officers, but three people spoke against the proposal to add the set-aside hour for religious instruction.
Two of the opponents were members of the Oconee County Republican Party Executive Committee. Party Chair Kathy Hurley made it clear she was offering a personal, rather than party, position.
Julie Mauck, who has organized the LifeWise effort and is on the steering committee, was a member of the local Republican Party Executive Committee before stepping down last year to run unsuccessfully for the party nomination for an open School Board seat.
The School Board devoted two-thirds of the hour-long meeting on Monday to citizen input, including from Mark Campbell, chair of the Oconee County Library Board of Trustees.
Campbell thanked the School Board for its support of Oconee County’s two libraries. It is budget season, and Campbell told the Board of Trustees last week that he will be seeking the same level of support in the next Fiscal Year from the School Board as in the past.
Mauck was the fifth of the six steering committee members to speak, but her presentation was the most emotional and critical of the Board.
|Mauck Speaking |
(Picture From Lawrence Video)
“I've recently been contacted by a few parents and even staff about some concerning issues in Oconee County Schools,” she said. “They're concerned about some anti-Christian behavior from a teacher and cross-gender affirmation in some of our schools.”
She said a teacher “has Christian students being shamed for their understanding of creation, biological boys and girls, PE classes and girls restrooms, and teachers using preferred gender pronouns rather than academic or biological ones for students.”
“Apparently a female student that identifies as a boy was given a male lead role over biological boys in one of our elementary school plays here even though several boys did try out,” she said.
“Your policies are perpetuating gender dysphoria in children as young as first grade in our schools,” Mauck said. “It's inexcusable for our elementary school children, who are just learning the very basics, to be misguided about sexuality and biology by those who are supposed to teach and guide them.”
“I realize that allowing character-based Bible education does not come with any funding attached, but you have an opportunity here to provide a positive experience for the children of the Christian families here in Oconee County to counter the anti-Christian education philosophies,” Mauck said.
“Please do the right thing and make LifeWise Academy available for our K-5 students,” Mauck said, tearing up. “All you have to do is say yes and the rest of it is done.”
“They need it. They are desperate,” Mauck said. ‘Help the Christian kids in this county, please.”
Oconee County Schools Director of Communication Steven Colquitt did not show the citizens speaking in the official recording of the meeting on the Oconee County Schools YouTube channel. He focused the camera only on the four Board members present and Superintendent Jason Branch as the citizens addressed the Board.
|Screen Shot From OCS Video|
It wasn’t necessary to see Lea Martin, the eighth speaker, to be moved by her story.
Martin said in 1995 she was in the 11th grade in a small town in South Carolina when one of her classmates walked into a classroom, shot a teacher in the face, and then went to the teacher work room and shot another teacher. The first teacher survived, but the second did not, she said.
“He then tried to get into our administrative offices to go and kill our principal, and he was unable to do so and shot himself,” she said. The student recently had been suspended from school.
“That was a day I will never wish on anybody, but a day I will never ever forget,” Martin said.
Martin said the school administrative officer “was in our administrative conference room along with all of the other administrative staff and recognized gunshots right away”
“He was able to immediately close our fire doors to the two classes, to the two hallways that had the majority of our classrooms, lock down all of our administrative offices and call the police. He was right there.”
The student was “unable to get into those offices because of our resource officers quick thinking and training,” Martin said. That is why Oconee County needs a resource officer in its schools, she said.
Chris Nelson was the first person who signed up to speak for the Public Communication section on the Monday Agenda.
The public is allowed to speak only at Regular sessions of the School Board, and each person is allocated only three minutes.
Nelson applauded the Board for how it handled the COVID-19 pandemic and said “the next threat that faces us right now needs to be addressed with the same qualities.”
“Right now, unfortunately, there's a monster somewhere planning to attack a school, and the only decision that's left in their addled brain is which school are they going to attack.”
“We've already spent a lot of time and money and effort on this issue,” Nelson said. "So far I know we've fortified our entry points and our verification systems. We have a new state-of-the-art crisis communications system.”
“And we have a great partnership with the Oconee County Sheriff that allows us to have amazing response times,” Nelson said.
“So I would say, let's take this next logical step for Oconee County schools,” Martin said. “We must have armed law enforcement on site anytime children are present.”
No Response From Board
Aubrey Stone returned to this topic as the sixth speaker, but her complaint was directed at the Board as well as at the lack of a security officer in the schools.
(Picture From Lawrence Video)
“I'm here tonight to follow up on an email sent to all of you on March 28th requesting a meeting to discuss the placement of law officers at all of our schools,” Stone said.
While she had not received a response from any member of the Board, Stone said, she had received a call from Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff, from Sheriff James Hale, and from Oconee County Middle School Principal Matt Stephens.
“I very much appreciate all of those responses,” she said. “After having conversations with Sheriff Hale and Dr. LeDuff, I have a much better understanding of all of the safety protocols and measures that are currently in place and how closely the Sheriff's Office works with the schools.”
“That was all very encouraging and wonderful to hear,” she said. “However those measures and protocols are in place as reactive measures to take when an attack occurs.”
“I was never given a satisfactory reason as to why we do not have officers at the schools.” she said. “I was only told we do not believe this is a good use of our resources.”
“I believe having an armed officer at every public school is a proactive measure we can and should take to protect our children,” Stone said.
“I will reach out to all of you individually to again request an in-person meeting to further discuss this topic,” Stone said.
First LifeWise Advocate
Jeff Wilkes, who had met on March 13 with Superintendent Branch and Board of Education Chair Kim Argo on behalf of the LifeWise steering committee, was the second citizen speaker on Monday, behind Nelson’s appeal for a security officer.
(Picture From Lawrence Video)
Wilkes said he had left a packet of material for all Board members at that March 13 meeting and reminded the Board that “We are requesting that you allow students to be released during school hours for religious instruction purposes.”
“Across our nation there are superintendents, school teachers, parents, students that are enrolled in these programs right now and who will boast about what it's doing in their school,” Wilkes said.
“We are asking that you not hinder those of us who want that for our children,” he said.
“I realize that you feel worried about the other groups--specifically mentioned by two of your Board--are the satanic groups that come in,” Wilkes said, “but haven't we already allowed that culture to infiltrate our school systems?”
“I believe so, and it's called secularism,” Wilkes said, “More importantly, it's called atheistic secularism.”
“I respectfully ask that you, the Board of Education, hold a formal discussion and vote on this request,” Wilkes said. “LifeWise Academy, its parents, its students are all ready to begin. The only hurdle before us is you the Board.”
Under the proposal given to the Board, the costs of transportation for the students to a site and of the instruction in what is termed a Bible based curriculum would be born by the parents, who would have to approve of the program for their participating children.
Next Three Speakers
The next three speakers were members of the local LifeWise steering committee, Cassidy Rogers, Scott Clark, and Edivia Tangren.
Rogers said that “many parents and educators focus on ensuring that children excel academically and socially but often neglect their spiritual development. However spirituality can provide children with the foundation they need to navigate the challenges of life and become well-rounded individuals.”
“I'm shocked you would turn down a program like LifeWise Academy that was specifically created for the betterment of students, academic performance, character development, and mental health,” she said.
Scott Clark said “I rise to the support LifeWise Academy because of the change that it can have upon school with regards to discipline matters.”
“As Christians the last thing Jesus told us before he left this Earth and returned to his father was go into all the world and teach the gospel,” Clark said.
Tangren said “nothing in the Constitution separates a child from their faith during school day. Constitutionally speaking, they are as free to worship God, Jesus, Allah as they are to speak.”
“Christian schools are overflowing, their rolls attracting parents who are willing to go into debt to give their kids a daily environment they trust,” she said.
“Why is it worth stopping this faith-based program from moving forward?” Tangren asked. “We ask that this LifeWise Academy is put on the agenda and let the public decide.”
Supporter Of Both Requests
Kristen Crumley, the final member of the Lifewise steering committee to speak, said “being able to send my child to the elementary school that we are zoned for would benefit my family greatly, saving me an average of $15,000 annually in tuition costs” she now pays for a private school.
(Picture From Lawrence Video)
“That would enable us to live more comfortably, and I could pour more of that money back into the small businesses and farmers in our community,” she said.
“But before I can do that, I need to feel confident that this Board is going to put the best interest of our children at the forefront,” Crumley added.
“What does that look like?” she asked. “For me, that means bringing in armed law enforcement officers to be a deterrent for would-be hostile invaders as well as to act as a first line of defense for protecting students physical safety.”
“It also looks like affording families the choice for their children to attend off-campus Bible education programs such as LifeWise Academy,” she said.
Opponents Of LifeWise Proposal
The last three speakers said they were opposed to the LifeWise proposal.
“I have already addressed most of my comments to the Board in an email, but I do want them to be public,” Hurley said.
As a child, Hurley said, “I had the benefit of having morning prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance every day in the classroom, and it was a great thing. It absolutely emphasized what it meant to be an American and to be a Christian American.”
“My very best friend was Jewish,” Hurley said. “I guarantee you she did not have the same viewpoint.”
When prayer was removed from the schools, she said, “it was a terrible thing, but for most people they already were church goers. They were at church on Sunday. They were at church on Wednesdays. Some of them were at church every day.”
“My personal opinion is to have a program such as LifeWise, which I understand has a one time a week for an hour. I don't think that you're going to get from that one program for one hour a week what you're looking for or what I've heard people talk about tonight.”
Exchange That Followed
Mauck made some comment after Hurley spoke, and the next speaker, former teacher David Lawrence, asked the Board to intervene.
(Picture From Lawrence Video)
“I do wish you would do a little bit better job with ending the time when the time ends,” Lawrence said to the Board.
Lawrence then said that the Board, which has so far not been willing to put the LifeWise proposal on the agenda, has made the correct decision.
“Religion brings out the best in people and it brings out the worst, and most Elementary School students just cannot tell the difference,” he said. “They can't come back to a school group and say, okay, you're Jewish and I accept you.”
Darrell Huckaby, Treasurer of the Oconee County Republican Party, said “I am here to ask you to carefully, carefully, carefully consider moving forward with anything that has to do with time release for any reason.”
“I think the primary responsibility for providing Christian education or any kind of religious education or instruction for a child lies with the parents,” he said.
Library Board Of Trustees
Campbell, chair of the Oconee County Library Board of Trustees, was the 10th speaker of the night, ahead of Hurley.
(Picture From Lawrence Video)
“I just want to say thank you all for your continued support,” Campbell told the Board.
“We believe that we're part of the education and the development of this community,” he said. “We are grateful for all the things that you do in your role in leadership.”
At the April 10 meeting of the Library Board, Campbell presented a budget for the coming fiscal year for the two libraries in the county–in Watkinsville and in Bogart–unchanged from the current year.
The county contributes the bulk of the money, $483,000, with the Board of Education contributing $31,000, Watkinsville contributing $30,000, and Bogart contributing $7,000.
Liz Harlow, Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, was the only staff member reporting to the Board at its meeting on Monday.
Harlow, in her Cash Balance Report, listed $55.8 million in the General Fund as of March 31, down from $58.2 on Feb. 28.
Educational Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) collections continue to greatly exceed those for the same month a year ago.
The most recent collection for February was $901,726, up 20.5 percent from the $748,380 for February of 2022.
The system has collected $1.8 million for the first two months of the year, which are the first two months of collection authorized by the current sales tax referendum.
The ELOST completed at the end of 2022 has $10.4 million in unspent funds, Harlow reported.
Board Member Tim Burgess, who usually asks at least some question of Harlow, did not attend the Monday meeting, and no other Board member asked any questions about the reports Harlow gave the Board.
The Board voted on Monday to approve a bid of $129,700 from CGS Waterproofing of Norcoss for the Oconee Middle School field house re-roofing project, paid for by money from the General Fund and ELOST revenues.
Wilkes had told me in advance that he and other members of the local LifeWise steering committee would attend the meeting on Monday, and I was concerned that all speakers be recorded.
I contacted Lawrence in advance of the meeting, asked if he planned to attend the meeting, and, if so, if he would use my camera and tripod to record the meeting.
Lawrence agreed to do so.
Because the video that Colquitt recorded does not show any of the speakers, I have uploaded the video that Lawrence recorded to my Vimeo site and embedded it below.
The pictures of the speakers above are from the video recorded by Lawrence. He was seated at the rear of the room in the section set aside for visitors.
Harlow makes her reports at 18:07 in the video.
Public Communication begins at 19:37 in the video.
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