Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Oconee County Schools Receives High Marks In Accreditation Review, School Board Told

***30 Criteria Used In Evaluation Leading To Accreditation***

Oconee County Schools has received accreditation with glowing scores, Susan Stancil, Chief Academic Officer for the school system, told the Board of Education at its final meeting of the year last week.

The accrediting body Cognia assigned Oconee County Schools an overall score of 326, considerably above the score of 300 that signifies a system meets expectations for accreditation.

Cognia evaluated Oconee County on 30 criterial and singled out its outstanding performance in some areas and suggested improvements in others.

The Board on Monday also adopted its Fiscal Year 2024 budget, which includes a five percent salary increase for all employees of Oconee County Schools, funding for 24 new growth positions, and new staffing for Dove Creek Middle School.

The budget also includes funding for deputies that serve as traffic officers in front of the schools–an expense previously covered by the county.

The Board also approved a new joint use agreement with the county that eliminates the fees that the Board was charging the Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department for use of school sports facilities.

The county has not been charging Oconee County Schools for use of its facilities.

Four citizens spoke to the Board during the public comment period on Monday, each asking the Board to approve the request to adopt the LifeWise program to allow K to 5 students to leave campus during the school day for religious instruction.


Stancil told the Board on June 5 that she and her staff have been working on the accrediting review since November of 2021 and submitted their materials to Cognia in December of last year.

Screen Shot Burgess Commenting On Agreements
June 5, 2023

Cognia accredits primary and secondary schools throughout the United States and internationally.

“I'm happy to announce that we have been awarded accreditation,” Stancil told the Board, referring to a letter dated April 19, that Annette Bohling, Chief Global Accreditation Officer for Cognia, wrote to Oconee County Schools.

The full Cognia report, which Stancil reviewed for the Board, singled out two of its 30 standards “that reflect significant areas of strength in the work” of Oconee County Schools.

“OCS has established and sustained an immersive culture of mutual respect, equity, and inclusion that focuses on the well-being of learners throughout the system,” the report states.

“Both internal and external stakeholders routinely articulate a sense of fairness and inclusion during decision-making and during the implementation of identified initiatives,” the report continues.

Weaknesses Identified

The report lists weaknesses associated with performance on six standards.

Oconee County Schools should “Develop, implement, and evaluate processes for conducting informal walkthroughs as a means of guiding faculty and staff in the processes of enhancing professional practices,” according to the report.

The report also recommends that Oconee County Schools “Design professional learning opportunities to enhance teacher awareness of instructional strategies to support rigor and relevancy in the classroom through the effective use of digital resources.”

Finally, the report recommends that Oconee County Schools “Expand the data analysis processes to include a closer examination of the performance of subgroups of student populations enrolled in the system.”

Board Reaction

“I do want to thank you and your staff, administrators and teachers on their work on the Cognia accreditation,” Board Chair Kim Argo told Stancil. “We've been involved in a few accreditations, and from our standpoint, this was the easiest.”

“All of you all deserve a lot of credit for the work you do there and the recognition you got, and it shouldn’t go unsaid,” Board Member Tim Burgess added.

“Congratulations and thank you for all your hard work,” Board Vice Chair Amy Parrish added.

Stancil told the Board she was taking steps to address the more critical comments of Cognia, particularly relating to the use of technology.


The Board had tentatively adopted its Fiscal Year 2024 Budget at its meeting on May 8 but held two public hearings following that action before taking the final vote on Monday of last week.

No citizen spoke at either of those public hearings.

Chief Financial Office Liz Harlow reviewed the budget for the Board as part of her financial reports on June 5.

The budget of just less than $106 million, an increase of 17.5 percent from $90.2 a year ago, is based on a millage rate of 15.5, the same rate as in the current Fiscal Year.

The budget includes:

* A five percent salary improvement ($3.7 million)

* Staffing for Dove Creek Middle School, which will open in July ($1.8 million)

* Health insurance employer contribution increase ($5 million)

* Twenty-four new growth positions ($2.3 million)

* Step increases for all eligible staff ($0.8 million)

* Academic and coaching supplement increases ($0.3 million)

Board Response

Oconee County Schools sent out a news release after the meeting quoting Board Chair Argo as saying the budget “prioritizes people and maintains fiscal responsibility for Oconee County Schools.”

“We are happy to be in a position to recognize our staff for their efforts with no increase in the millage rate,” the quote from Argo in the news release continues. “Each component of this budget will help meet and exceed the standards for which our schools are known.”

At the meeting on June 5, Board Member Burgess said “This is a substantial budget, but it addresses a lot of very substantial issues.”

Burgess highlighted the “significant increase in the employer health care contribution” and “the “significant salary improvements for our teachers and staff and others that make our school work and make it the excellent school system that is here that is and well deserved.”

Burgess also noted the 24 growth positions in the budget, saying “we continue to be a growing system. Growing systems have to accommodate more students. More students needs more teachers. And we continue to meet those growth needs with 24 positions.”

“We opened up a brand new middle school, huge middle school, with 27 new positions in addition to all the teachers that are going to be moved around back and forth between the various buildings,” he said.

“We've planned for that,” he said. “We've prepared for that and we're able to accommodate that significant budget increase in a very fiscally responsible way with a very fiscally responsible budget.”

Enrollments have been growing at a modest rate in recent years. In the Autumn of 2022, Oconee County Schools added only 108 students systemwide, for a growth rate of 1.3 percent.

Two Agreements

The Fiscal Year 2024 budget includes $169,000 to cover the costs of the Oconee County Sheriff's Department providing traffic control at the schools.

In the past, the county has covered these costs, and the Board on Monday approved a new Memo of Understanding with the Oconee County’s Sheriff’s Office spelling out the new arrangement.

The Board also approved a new Joint Use Agreement with the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on use of each other’s athletic facilities that essentially reverts to the relationship between the county and schools in 2020.

Neither Oconee County Schools nor the county will charge the other for use of sports facilities under the new agreement.

The Board of Commissioners agreed as part of the new arrangement to reduce the amount the county charges for collecting the ad valorem taxes for the school system from 2.5 percent to 2.0 percent.

The budget Harlow presented to the Board and that the Board adopted did not reflect that change.

Board Comments On Agreements

Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff introduced the two agreements to the Board on June 5, saying “we've been collaborating with commissioners and the County Parks and Recreation to reach a new agreement.”

“This agreement will be a five-year agreement rather than a three-year agreement,” he said. “We would agree not to charge Parks and Rec for use of our facilities and the Board of Commissioners has agreed not to charge our County Schools more than two percent as a tax collection fee.”

On the Memo of Understanding with the Sheriff’s Office, LeDuff said “again we’ve collaborated with the Oconee Board of Commissioners and the Sheriff's Office to develop a MOU for traffic control for Oconee County Schools.”

“Again that is for a term of five years as well,” he said.

“Thanks for the two agreements you just laid out,” Burgess said. “I appreciate your bringing those to the Board. I think they are both quality agreements that address two significant issues.”

“I think this (the MOU) will create a much more collaborative arrangement between the school system and the Sheriff’s Office on a service that is very critical to the safety of our students.”

“So the fact that now you've put in place a memorandum with them that will have us engaged directly with the Sheriff's Office and in that service every morning in front of our schools is probably well past due and it was it was a good move.”

“On the agreement with the county on the facilities use,” Burgess said. “Yet again a very good agreement that I think addresses the issue in a very fair and deliberate way.”

Additional Board Responses

“And I would be remiss if I didn't complement both our chair and our vice chair for their creative work and diplomacy in helping us bring this agreement for the approval tonight and with a very good ending for what has in the past been a thorny issue,” Burgess said.

“I would just say thank you very much for all the work that you did or have done on it,” Parrish said, addressing LeDuff.

“I want to thank my fellow board members and the commission chair (John Daniell) and the commissioners for being open-minded and coming up with a solution that was the best for our community and looking at the whole instead of just the part of the separate entities,” Parrish said.

“I'd like to echo both of their thoughts (referring to Parrish and Burgess) and I look forward to working both with the Sheriff's Office and the commissioners in the future,” Argo said.

Public Comments

Crumley, the first of four speakers advocating for the LifeWise program, called on Board members to “speak up in favor of bringing the gospel to unchurched children.”

“I believe it would be very insightful for the next voting cycle to know which of you stand up for parental rights and on which of you parental wishes fall onto deaf ears,” she added.

Tangren told the Board that “your mission of providing top-tier education will be enhanced not diminished by religious freedom within the walls of Oconee schools.”

“I've talked to a lot of people who have either been familiar with it or their families have been in it,” Pat Daugherty told the Board, speaking of the LifeWise program. “and teachers say behavior problems go down, self-esteem of students goes up.”

“It's just a great moral foundation,” she added. “And it's not evangelizing at all.”

Mauck, who has been the local organizer of the initiative, was most critical of the unwillingess of the Board to put the issue on the agenda for discussion and to allow the program to move forward.

“It is ready to go,” Mauck said of the LifeWise program. “We have churches who have agreed to host the classes, parents who want the classes for their children, and all we need is for you to say okay.”

“If you're truly interested in diversity, equity and inclusiveness in our schools without bias,” Mauck said, “you'll approve this LifeWise program for the Christian families that live here who are the majority that vote for you.”

Financial Reports

Chief Financial Officer Harlow’s budget presentation followed her usual financial reports to the Board.

Included was the budget report, with Harlow reporting for May that “revenues and expenditures are where we expect they would be.”

Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) collections in April were 13 percent higher than in April of 2022, according to Harlow’s report, and collections are averaging 15.9 percent higher over the same month a year earlier.

ELOST V, which ended in December of last year, has $10.4 million unspent, according to Harlow’s report, though $4.6 million of that is committed for modifications at Oconee County Primary School, Elementary School, and High School and another $95,430 is committed for new buses.

Collections for ELOST VI began only in January, and so far $3.8 million has been collected of the projected $37.9 million in revenue from the tax.

Burgess Comments

When Harlow had finished her reports, Board Member Burgess said “I'll talk about the budget when we get ready to approve it. I just want to mention something to you guys.” He was referring to his fellow Board members.

Screen Shot Burgess Holding Up Audit
June 5, 2023

“I know you've looked at this,” Burgess said, holding up a thin report in a black cover. “Jason gave us this a couple of months ago. It's a performance audit of our ELOST program, and it is a very good audit.”

“It defines eight different objectives,” Burgess said. “And it is clear that Liz and her staff have met every one of those objectives as required by policy or state law.”

“And you need to be congratulated for that because it's a big program with a lot of moving parts,” Burgess continued, “and this audit verifies that in fact it’s well working program, and I just want to mention that. Thank you,” he said.

Performance Audit

Burgess was referring to a Performance Audit on SPLOST Revenues conducted by Mauldin and Jenkins of Atlanta for the year ending June 30, 2022. It is dated March 22, 2023.

I obtained a copy of the audit via an open records request I filed with Oconee County Schools after the June 5 meeting.

While Oconee County Schools refers to its tax as ELOST, the audit refers to it as a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).

As Burgess stated, the nine-page report listed eight audit objectives, and it found Oconee County Schools in compliance on all eight objectives.

For example, one objective was to “determine whether the schedule of projects adheres to the approved resolution adopted by the School Board.”

The audit report said it was dealing with ELOST V and ELOST VI, since Oconee County Schools was spending from both during the period of the report, July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022.

The report notes a difference in the two ELOST programs. ELOST V was to be used to pay for a series of “capital outlay projects,” including the construction of Dove Creek Elementary School.

ELOST VI is to be used to pay for “a portion of the costs” of a series of “capital outlaw projects,” including construction of Dove Creek Middle School and the new Instructional Support Center.

The ballot language for ELOST VI reflects this difference, but the campaign for ELOST VI did not make explicit the dependence on property taxes as well as ELOST revenues for the construction projects underway.

Sports Success

As part of his Associate Superintendent Report to the Board on June 5, LeDuff said “We have had another very successful year in competing in our GHSA sanctioned events,” referring to the Georgia High School Association.

LeDuff said that Oconee County high schools had 19 region area championships, six State Final Four appearances, eight state runners-up, seven state championships, and 18 different students with individual state championships.

“It's quite an impressive list, I think,” LeDuff said.

“I wanted to say thank you to the Board,” LeDuff said, “for not only supporting our school leaders and looking for opportunities to engage outside of the school day but also for recognizing how much time and energy our staff puts into those activities in the classroom and outside of the classroom. So thank you.”

Construction Update

Fred Ricketson, Director of the Facilities for Oconee County Schools, told the Board in the Operations Division Report at the June 5 meeting that “there's still a lot of work to done” at the new Dove Creek Middle School “but it's looking pretty good” for the July opening.

Construction Update Dove Creek Middle School

Modifications at Oconee County Primary, Oconee County Elementary, and Oconee County High School also are on schedule, he said.

“We’re continuing to make really good progress” at the Instructional Support Center on North Main Street in Watkinsville, Ricketson said.

“I'm driving it home to the contractor how important the schedule is,” he said. “I don't want us to get behind, and we got our first concrete in the ground and getting ready to start coming out of the ground.”

Kevin Price Construction has the contract for the $14.5 million Instructional Support Center project. The expected completion date is May 31, 2024.

Ricketson said that construction of the additional classrooms at Malcom Bridge Elementary School “is about on the same track as the Instructional Support Center. We've got concrete in the ground now.”

That work also is to be completed by the end of May of next year.

“We’re really busy with paving” at the schools,” Ricketson said. “We’ve got a lot of things going on now.”

Materials on order for tennis court lights at the two high schools, he said.


The video below is on the YouTube channel of Oconee County Schools. Two of the pictures above are screen shots from that video.

Stancil began her comments on accrediting at 20:39 in the video.

Harlow began her financial reports, including on the budget, at 31:56 in the video.

Burgess made his comment about the ELOST audit at 35:38

LeDuff made his comments about the athletic success of Oconee County Schools at 38:16 in the video.

LeDuff presented the Joint Use Agreement on sports facilities and the Memo of Understanding with the Sheriff’s Office at 40:05 in the video.

Ricketson gave his construction update at 45:33.

Crumley, the first speaker in the public comment section of the meeting, came to the podium at 56:40 in the video.

Burgess made his comments about the budget at 1:12:24 in the video.

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