Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Oconee County School Board Approves Tentative Budget For Fiscal Year 2024 With Large Increases In Revenue And Spending

***Public Hearings Set For May 17 And 22***

The Oconee County School Board on Monday adopted a tentative Fiscal Year 2024 General Fund Budget that shows a 13.0 percent growth in revenue over the budget the Board adopted a year ago and a 17.5 percent growth in expenditures.

The revenue growth includes 11.0 percent growth in local funds, including a projected 11.1 percent increase in Property and Ad Valorem Taxes and a 14.8 percent growth in state revenue for Oconee County Schools, including for teacher pay.

The estimated Property and Ad Valorem Tax amount is based on a tentative millage rate of 15.5, unchanged from the current rate, and a projected growth in the Tax Digest for the county of 7.3 percent. The final millage rate will be set in late summer after the Tax Digest is determined.

The expenditure growth includes 17.3 percent increase in Instructional costs, the largest part of the school system budget, 22.3 percent increase in Maintenance and Operations, and 18.1 percent increase in School Administration. Oconee County Schools will open Dove Creek Middle School in August.

The funding gap of $2.1 million will be covered by drawing on the existing Fund Balance, which is projected to be $34.8 million on June 30 of this year, according to the budget the Board approved on Monday.

In the public comment section of the meeting on Monday, five citizens spoke, two asking the Board to approve the LifeWise proposal for released time at the elementary school level for religious instruction, one opposing that proposal, and two asking the Board to put security officers in the schools.

The Board also approved a bid of $727,930 for the installation of lighting at the tennis courts at the county’s two high schools and bids totaling $4.2 million for paving this summer at schools and school facilities.

The Board also agreed to put on the table for discussion a proposal to allow sixth graders to participate in school sports, with the exception of tackle football.

Budget Vote

Oconee County Schools Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow had presented the Board with the tentative Fiscal Year 2024 Budget at its work session on May 1, and the vote on Monday was taken without discussion.

Screen Shot Burgess (Second From Left)
Talking With Harlow (Not Visible) 5/8/2023

Board Member Tim Burgess once again complimented Harlow for dividing the $34.8 million projected Fund Balance for June 30 of this year into three parts: $11.0 million Committed Fund Balance, $8.0 million Assigned Fund Balance, and $15.8 million Unassigned Fund Balance.

She defined Assigned Fund Balance as money set aside for specific purposes, and Committed Fund Balance as for future debt payments on the 2021 General Obligation bonds.

According to the documents Harlow released in her monthly financial reports on Monday, Oconee County Schools owes $46.7 million in payments against the bonds it issued after the current Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) was approved by voters in March of 2021.

The Bond were sold against the revenue from ELOST. The five-year tax only started at the first of this year, and Oconee County Schools already has collected $2.8 million, Harlow reported on Monday.

ELOST collections are running far head of the same month a year ago, up 24.8 percent in January, 20.5 percent in February, and 17.5 percent in March. The average increase over the last 14 months has been 16.2 percent above the same month a year earlier.

“There’s a lot of moving parts in this budget,” Burgess said to Harlow. “You did a really good job with this, putting all of this together, balancing all of them. Most importantly, the steps you’re taking to address the debt that will occur as we build all of these projects over the next five years is a really important one, and I appreciate you starting the process.”

News Release

Oconee County Schools sent out a news release, also posted on its web site, announcing the Board action.

“The Board is pleased to approve a tentative budget that prioritizes people and maintains fiscal responsibility for Oconee County Schools,” Board Chair Kim Argo is quoted as saying.

“We are pleased to be in a position to recognize our staff for their efforts with no increase in the millage rate,” her statement continues. “Each component of this budget will help meet and exceed the high standards for which our schools are known.”

Listed elements of the budget include a health insurance employer contribution increase, five percent salary improvements, 24 new academic positions, Dove Creek Middle School staffing, and step increases for all eligible staff.

The budget also includes, according to the news release, academic and coaching supplement increases, funds for the Oconee County Sheriff's Department to provide traffic control at schools, salary adjustments for paraprofessionals, technology improvements, and a $2,000 supplement for special education paraprofessionals.

Public hearings on the budget will be held at 4 p.m. on May 17 and 22 at the Oconee County Schools Central Office, 34 School Street in Watkinsville.

The Board is scheduled to approve a final budget on June 5.

LifeWise Academy

Two of the five speakers at the meeting on Monday also had addressed the Board at its meeting on April 17.

Screen Shot Clark (Not Visible)
Addressing Board 5/8/2023

Scott Clark again asked the Board to accept the proposal of a group of local parents who want to initiate a program in collaboration with LifeWise, an Ohio group, that would allow students to leave their elementary schools for an hour of religious instruction each week.

Clark said there has been a lot of “misinformation” about the request that the parents are making.

“All we are asking is for parents to be allowed to sign their child out with a durable permission slip for the length of the semester or the length of the school year and that we be allowed to coordinate with the school administration and the teachers to make sure that that release happens during a time when it is an electives class, is an activities time, like art, or PE, or music or something that is not one of the core classes.”

“In this case, the parent is determining for themselves, which I believe is their right, to do so, is to determine, hey, it is more important for my child to do this than PE, or art, or music for one day a week,” he said.

“That’s all we’re asking,” he said. “Let’s coordinate.”

“I just want to reiterate what Scott said about working with you all, trying to get this program, LifeWise Academy, out to our kids,” Julie Mauck said. “It is a great program.”

Mauck has been one of the leaders of the LifeWise Academy effort, and she also had addressed the Board last month.

Kurt Dahlstrom told the Board he was opposed to the LifeWise program, saying it would be disruptive for those who left the school and those who stayed behind.

He said if the LifeWise Academy program were implemented he would be interested in offering an alternative program that focused on “science, reason, emotional intelligence, and career success.”

School Resource Officers

John Martin said he had talked with several Board members individually about having “armed officers in the schools.”

“I do believe we’re doing a lot,” he said. “I think we have a great safety protocol and program in place, but I don’t think we’re doing enough.”

“I hope that we can come together as citizens of this community and support our law enforcement and school system and work in a collaborative way to bring more security to our schools than we have today,” Martin said.

“The goal here is to protect our children, the greatest asset of this community,” he said.

Wesley Rice said he knew that costs of security officers were a concern to the Board and one option would be to allow administrators to carry weapons.

“I just think we can do a little bit more,” Rice said, echoing the comments of Martin.


The Board accepted a low bid of $727,930 from Qualified Electrical Contractors of Statham for the tennis court lighting at Oconee County High School and at North Oconee High School.

The Board broke the bids for the paving into eight parts and awarded bids to Allied Paving of Pendergrass, Atlanta Paving of Norcross, Magnum Paving of Villa Rica, Smith & Co. of Monroe, and Surface Masters of Marietta.

The total cost of the bids is $4,146,420.

Both the lighting and the paving will be paid for with ELOST and General Funds, Superintendent Jason Branch told the Board.

The Board did not take final action on the proposed change in Board policy to allow sixth graders to participate in interscholastic sports, except for tackle football.

The Board voted to put the proposed change “on the table” for public comment and action at a later meeting.


The video below is on the Oconee County Schools web site.

The video is focused on the Board and does not show any of the speakers, consistent with recent Oconee County Schools recordings of its meetings.

Clark, the first citizen to speak, begins his comments at 20:24 in the video.

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