Oconee County Schools begins the school year on Aug. 2 with 126 new hires, including 93 new certified employees, 78 of whom are teachers, Justin Cofer, Chief Human Resources Officer, told the Oconee County Board of Education on Monday.
More than half of those new teachers have six or more years of teaching experience, he said, and 64 percent of the certified new hires have advanced degrees.
Fourteen of the certified staff hires are coming to Oconee County Schools as new graduates, he said, but 12 of them are coming from Barrow County, 11 from Clarke County, 10 from Gwinnett County, and nine from Jackson County.
Twenty-four of the new hires are in newly created positions, including 17 new teachers. That figure is up from 19 new positions created at the beginning of the last academic year, with 15 of those for teachers.
Cofer also told the Board that Oconee County Schools has had a 25 percent vacancy rate in its custodial staff during the last year, and, as a result, the administration was recommending contracting with an outside firm for supplemental custodial services.
Later in the meeting, the Board approved a contract with Supreme Maintenance Organization, based in Greensboro, N.C., for custodians on an as needed basis.
School Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow on Monday presented the Board with amended budgets for the just completed fiscal year that showed a $7.6 million increase in General Fund Revenue and $2.6 million increase in Federal Fund Revenue over the adopted budgets.
During an executive session following the regular meeting, the Board approved the separation of Harlow from Oconee County Schools effective July 31. Harlow is the third member of Superintendent Jason Branch’s cabinet to leave since September of last year.
The Board’s acceptance of Harlow’s separation was in response to a lengthy list of personnel recommendations from Branch that the Board approved in the executive session on Monday.
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Vote On Amended Budgets
The list included 30 new hires and 15 separations. No reasons for the separations are listed.
Harlow joins cabinet members Brook Whitmire, then Chief Human Resources Officer, and Brock Toole, then Chief Operations Officer, in leaving Oconee County Schools within the last 12 months.
Whitmire left Oconee County Schools at the end of April of this year, and Toole at the end of September of last year.
Branch’s cabinet at the beginning of last year consisted of Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff, Chief Technology Officer Ryan White, Chief Academic Officer Susan Stancil, Chief Human Resources Officer Cofer, Chief Financial Office Harlow, and Chief Operations Officer Toole.
Toole has not been replaced.
Chief Academic Officer Stancil was promoted from Director of Secondary Education in February of 2022 to Chief Academic Officer to replace Claire Buck, whose separation was effective April of 2022.
Harlow has been Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools since September of 2021. She moved from Director of Finance to Chief Financial Officer to replace Saranna Charping, who stepped down at the end of June of 2021.
Cofer told the Board on Monday that the 93 certified hires this year included one principal, one director, two speech language pathologists, three assistant principals, and eight counselors in addition to the 78 teachers.
Of the 78 new teachers, 34 are at the elementary level, 26 are at the middle, and 18 at the system’s two high schools.
For the academic year just completed, Oconee County Schools had hired 131 new employees, including 77 teachers.
Of those newly hired teachers last year, 57.7 percent had six or more years of experience, compared with the 51.0 percent this year.
Last year, 19 of the new hires were from Gwinnett County, compared with the 10 from that county this year. Ten of the new hires last year came from Clarke County, compared with the 11 this year.
Only 10 of the new hires last year were at the middle school level, compared with the 26 this year, reflecting the opening of the new Dove Creek Middle School this year.
The Fiscal Year 2024 budget approved by the Board included, at a cost of $2.3 million, 24 expansion positions, including 17 teachers, two speech language pathologists, four paraprofessionals, and one Registered Behavioral Technical paraprofessional.
The Fiscal Year 2023 budget had included 19 new positions, including 15 teachers, three paraprofessionals, and one payroll specialist.
Superintendent Report And Dove Creek
Superintendent Branch was in a celebratory mood as he give his Superintendent’s Report at the beginning of the meeting on Monday.
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Superintendent Branch Gives Report
That afternoon he was the lead speaker in a ribbon cutting ceremony for Dove Creek Middle School attended by an estimated 300 to 400 persons, including state Rep. Houston Gaines, State Rep. Marcus Wiedower, county officials, Board of Educations members, and the general public.
“Nearly a decade ago our community--made up of teachers, students, and parents-- shared their hopes and dreams of a world-class education with a small-town feel during several strategic planning input sessions convened to guide our work,” Branch said in his comments at the ribbon cutting.
“Today, that work and the vision of Dove Creek Middle School becomes a reality,” he said.
It was a theme he returned to in his Superintendent’s Report on Monday night.
“I want to thank the Board for your leadership,” he said. “Almost a decade ago we purchased the property and had the conversations. We began building Dove Creek Elementary and now today, we’re opening Dove Creek Middle School.”
Branch then turned to the new school year about to begin.
“So very exciting, busy time of the year,” he said. “Appreciate all the leaders in the room, and all of our staff, as we prepare to welcome back nearly 9,000 students this year.”
Official enrollment figures were 8,517 on March 2 of this year and 8,531 on Oct. 4 of 2022. Oconee County Schools grew by 108 students from October of 2021 to October of 2022.
Business Services Reports
Chief Financial Officer Harlow, in her reports to the Board on Monday, said Oconee County Schools had $48.4 million in its General Fund account at the end of June, down from $52.9 million in May.
Educational Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) revenue was up 15.3 percent for the month of May compared with that same month in 2022, Harlow reported.
For the last six months–since Costco has opened–collections have averaged 19.4 percent more than the same month a year earlier, and for the last 12 months, that average has been 16.9 percent.
Oconee County School has garnered $4.8 million in the first five months of the current tax, ELOST VI, collection, against the projected collection of $37.9 million.
Oconee County Schools has borrowed $42.97 million through bond sales for the array of construction projects underway, including $39.6 million for construction of the Dove Creek Middle School and $14.5 million for construction of the new Instructional Support Center.
Total payments to retire those bonds is $46.7 million.
Harlow reported that Oconee County Schools has $10.2 million in unspent money left over in ELOST V, which ended on Dec. 31 of last year.
Harlow presented the Board an amended General Fund Budget for the fiscal year that ended on June 30 that showed an increase in revenue of $7.6 million and an increase in spending of $5.8 million.
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Burgess With Question For Harlow (Off Screen)
The increased revenue reflected $3.2 million in excess local tax revenue, including from the ad valorem tax, $950,000 in investment and interest income, and $2.9 million in state QBE (Quality Basic Education) funding.
Additional spending was for instruction ($2.3 million) and Facilities Acquisition and Construction Services ($3.8 million).
Those instructional money, Harlow told Board member Tim Burgess, is for employee health insurance and is fully funded by the state, and the construction money is for projects at Oconee Elementary and Oconee Primary schools and for the additions at Colham Ferry and High Shoals elementary schools.
The Amended Federal Funds Budget showed an increase in revenue of $2.6 million and an increase in spending of $2.5 million.
Federal stimulus monies under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) category made up $425,756 of the added funding and expenditures.
Oconee County Schools received $802,641 over the budget monies for school nutrition, bringing that total to more than $3.2 million.
Unbudgeted spending for school nutrition was $732,162, with the total spending for school nutrition coming to just less than $3.2 million.
The Board approved the amended budgets during the action voting section of the meeting.
“The last item of information is an update on the tax digest,” Harlow said.
“The required hearing dates and times are July 24th, one at 9 a.m. and one a 6 p.m.,” she said, without explanation. “The third hearing will be July 31st at 5:30 p.m.,” she said.
“Now that the final Tax Digest has been provided,” she continued, “we recommend a millage rate of 15.0 mills, a decrease of 0.5 mills from the tentatively adopted millage rate of 15.5 mills.”
“Although the millage rate is decreasing, due to the growth in the tax digest, we are required to have hearings,” she continued. “The dates and times will satisfy all requirements for the adoption of the final millage rate at the Board meeting to occur on July 31 at 6 p.m.”
With her reports completed, Harlow asked for questions.
Burgess asked about the budget amendments, but none of the Board members asked about the millage rate or the tax hearings or any other part of Harlow’s report.
The Board has not met publicly since it adopted the Final Fiscal Year 2024 on June 5, with the tentative millage rate of 15.5.
The millage rate of 15.0 represents a 9.53 percent increase in school property taxes.
Cofer, in his Human Resources Report, told the Board that the new policy of removing tuition payments for the children of employees “has aided in recruitment not only of several classified staff, but also certified staff, who seek to bring their children to the same school district for which they work.”
Hiring custodial workers has remained a problem, he said, and during the last year Oconee County Schools had a 25 percent vacancy rate for custodial positions.
Fred Ricketson, Director of Facilities, returned to the plan to contract with Supreme Maintenance Organization in his Operations Report to the Board.
Ricketson said Oconee County Schools had publicly advertised for bids for the custodial service and that 10 firms had submitted proposals.
Ricketson said the day shift custodian would continue to work “and at night time, SMO would come in and clean our schools.”
Branch, responding to questions from Burgess, said he expects to start with about five elementary schools and two middle schools but he does not have a cost estimate for the service.
Branch said Oconee County Schools will “continue to seek custodians at all levels...This is specifically to meet a need based on vacancies that we currently have and the honest inability for us to find staff to fill the vacancies.”
Ricketson did not release the 10 bids for custodial services, but he did provide a bid tabulation for the purchase of classroom furniture for the Malcom Bridge Elementary School addition.
Ernie Morris Enterprises from Cumming submitted the sole bid of $96,768, which was approved by the Board along with the custodial contract.
In his construction update, Ricketson said that construction at the Dove Creek Middle School is “really close to the finish line. We’re doing some punch list items, but we are ready for school.”
|Malcom Bridge Middle School Expansion|
From Operations Report 7/17/2023
Ricketson said that construction is continuing on modifications at Oconee County Primary School, Oconee County Elementary School, and Oconee County High and that this will work be completed for the start of school.
The yellow vapor barrier is in place for the new Instructional Support Center, Ricketson said, and he expected workers to pour concrete the next day and that steel work will begin next week.
Work on the addition of 12 classrooms at Malcom Bridge Elementary School is underway, he said, and the new classrooms will be ready for next school year.
Paving is completed at some schools and ongoing at others, he said, and all will be completed by the Aug. 2 start of classes.
Ricketson said the materials have been ordered for the installation of lights at the high school tennis courts and that underground piping and other underground work will be completed before school starts.
The first video below is on the YouTube Channel of Oconee County Schools.
Branch began his Superintendent’s Report at 0:43 in the video.
Board Chair Kim Argo congratulated Dr. Branch for being named the President of the Georgia School Superintendent's Association as soon as he finished his comments.
Harlow began her report at 7:35 in the video.
Cofer began his Human Resources Report at 13:23 in the video.
Ricketson began his Operations Report at 24:56 in the video.
The second video is made up of clips I shot inside and outside of Dove Creek Middle School after the ribbon cutting.