Sunday, July 30, 2023

Revised Oconee County Schools Budget Designed To Maintain $34.8 Million Budget Surplus

***Millage Rate Not Yet Approved By Board But Included In Mailer***

The Oconee County Board of Education and school administrators received a report on the size of the county’s tax digest in late June or early July, and they revised the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget for Oconee County Schools sometime after that date.

The new budget shows a reduction of the millage rate to 15.0 from the 15.5 in the budget the Board passed on June 5.

Because of the exceptional growth in the tax digest, however, the 15.0 mills produces $2.1 million more in revenue from local property taxes than the original budget the Board approved.

The Board decided to use that $2.1 million in extra money generated by the 15.0 mills to maintain its $34.8 million budget surplus, rather than draw down that surplus by $2.1 million, as it had planned to do when it passed the Final Fiscal Year 2024 Budget on June 5.

The 15.0 mill rate represents a 9.53 percent increase in property taxes, but the Board kept that information from the public until July 12, when it was required by state law to run an announcement of the increase in The Oconee Enterprise.

Oconee County Schools embargoed the announcement, meaning the editorial staff of the paper couldn’t write a story about the tax increase until July 19, five days before the first legally required public hearing on the tax increase on July 24.

The Board didn’t release the revised budget until 9 a.m. on July 24, when school staff projected it onto the screen during the hearing. No hard copies were available until the second hearing at 6 p.m. that day.

No one explained to the public that the difference in the budget projected on the screen and the one the Board passed on June 5--and the one on the school system web site at the time of the hearing--was in the growth of the budget surplus in the new budget.

The final hearing on the tax increase is set for 5:30 p.m. Monday at the school administrative offices in Watkinsville, and the Board is scheduled to vote at 6 p.m. on the millage rate.

Oconee County Schools mailed its annual report to residents of the county last week stating that the rate already has been set at 15.0 mills.

Confusion At Hearings

The unwillingness of Oconee County School administrators and the Board to explain the changes in the budget produced confusion at the two hearings on July 24.

Branch Pointing To Budget Report
Link On School Web Site

Board Member Tim Burgess and Oconee County Schools Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow repeatedly referred to the budget as “balanced” but did not explain how that had been achieved--or even say that the budget approved on June 5 had been “unbalanced”.

The four citizens who spoke--who hadn’t been able to see the budget in advance and make comparisons between the old and new--focused on the old budget and based their comments on calculations based on that old budget.

The situation became further muddied by Board Members’ and School Superintendent Jason Branch’s response to requests for a detailed budget by two of those who spoke.

Board Members Burgess and Michael Ransom said a detailed budget was online, and Branch led one of the citizens after the evening session through a search of the Oconee County Schools web site to the Budget Reports that Harlow gives to the Board each month.

The most recent one is in the minutes of the June 5 meeting of the Board and is for May of the last fiscal year. No detailed budget for the new fiscal year is available.

After the meeting--but in public--Board Member Tim Burgess told one of the citizens that the Board had debated and discussed the budget in detail in its public meetings leading up to the public hearings.

The video record of the three meeting when the Board took action on the budget shows that Board members complained about the state funding formula and about fees charged to the schools, and Burgess praised Harlow for showing the budget surplus in a way that makes it appear smaller.

Burgess also went out of the way to list things covered by the budget.

There never was any discussion among Board members, however, about the budget.

Morning Session On July 24

Robert Fincher and Albert Ledenham both spoke at the morning session on July 24, though Fincher used his allotted three minutes and Ledenham spoke briefly without coming to the podium. Both asked for detailed budgets. 

During Fincher’s comments, both Burgess and Ransom indicated the information he was seeking was on the web site, but no one from the Board otherwise responded to the comments either of them had made.

I was seated in the far, rear corner of the meeting room, with my camera and tripod clearly visible in front of me.

After the meeting ended, Fincher came up to me and introduced himself and then returned to the rear, center of the room, a very short distance from me.

I had just turned off my camera when I realized that Burgess and Vice Chair Amy Parrish, who had chaired the meeting in the absence of Board Chair Kim Argo, had come back to the rear of the room to talk with both Fincher and Ledenham.

I turned the camera back on and recorded the conversation.

Part way through the conversation, Burgess, but neither Fincher nor Ledenham, asked me to turn off the camera. I refused, saying that the conversation was taking place in a public meeting space.

I, with my camera and tripod, had been clearly visible to Burgess and Parrish as they came to the rear of the room near where I was sitting to talk to Fincher and Ledenham.

Burgess On Web Site, Board Discussions

I included the video from that exchange in my coverage of the two hearings on July 24, but I went back to the video and re-edited it to single out the post-meeting exchange with Burgess and Parrish from the morning and a post-meeting exchange involving Superintendent Branch at the evening session.

I had not included the latter in my earlier video.

The video combining these two clips is the first video below.

“It is all out there on the web site,” Burgess said to Fincher as the clip begins.

“We spend four months putting this budget together,” Burgess said. “There is a lot of detail. There is a lot of debate. We talk about it in two different--we actually debate the budget two months before we ever approve it.”

“Those meeting are closed?” Fincher asked.

Both Burgess and Parrish said “No.”

“The debates are right here,” Burgess said, pointing to the front of the room.

“Just right here?” Fincher responded.

“Right here,” Burgess said. “And we approve it, twice, in public, right here.”

Video Record

The Board received its first public preview of the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget on May 1.

Burgess Saying That Board Discussed
Budget "Right Here"

At its May 8 meeting, the Board adopted the tentative budget.

At its June 5 meeting, it adopted the final budget with a tentative millage rate of 15.5, pending receipt of the report of the tax digest from County Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle.

I wrote about all three of those meetings and about the reaction of the Board in each instance. The hot buttons in the copy above lead to those reports.

After the meeting on July 24, I went back and reexamined the video recorded by Oconee County Schools and on the school web site from those meetings.

I used screen capture software to collect all of the discussion at the meetings.

The video of those captured segments of those three meetings is the second one below.

While it is not possible for a viewer of these clips to verify precisely the time calculations I report below because of the way I captured the video, it is possible to verify the nature of the interaction.

Public Time Devoted To Budget: First Session

At the meeting on May 1, Harlow starts her presentation of the General Fund Budget at 41:56 in the video recorded by Oconee County Schools and stops at 57:33. That’s a total of 15 minutes and 35 seconds.

BOE Meeting 5/1/2023

In response Argo, and Board Member Ryan Hammock, complain about the state requirement that all local school districts allocate what is called a “Local Fair Share” to complement state funding.

They said it was an unfair subsidy of poor school districts by wealthy districts.

This Local Fair Share was shown in the budget as a reduction by $12.8 million in the state allocation of $66.3 million as part of the Quality Basic Education Funds, and Argo argued this was money leaving Oconee County for other counties. (It is, in fact, money not coming to Oconee County.)

Burgess also thanked Harlow for showing the $34.8 million in Fund Balance as only $13.7 million by removing what she called the Committed Fund Balance and the Assigned Fund Balance from the overall Fund Balance.

Burgess then argued that the county was charging Oconee County Schools too much as a collection fee.

That fee of 2.5 percent subsequently was reduced to 2.0 percent when Oconee County School agreed to stop charging the county for use of school sports fields for county recreational programs.

Those comments by Argo, Hammock, and Burgess ended at 1:03:06, meaning they consumed 5 minutes and 39 seconds.

Harlow next spent 37 seconds reviewing the Fiscal Year 2024 Federal Funds Budget. There was no Board response.

May 8 Meeting

On May 8, Harlow again addressed the Board about the two Fiscal Year 2024 Budgets.

She began her comments at 17:15 in the video of that meeting and ended them at 19:18, or 2 minutes and 3 seconds later.

No member of the Board spoke, but when the Board was ready to vote to adopt the tentative budget, Burgess asked to speak.

He again complimented Harlow for how she had divided up the surplus.

He began his comments at 41:08 and ended them at 42:35, meaning he spent 1 minute and 27 seconds speaking.

No other Board member spoke.

June 5 Meeting

At the June 5 meeting, Harlow presented the budgets again, starting at 33:16 in the video and ending 35:36, or 3 minutes and 20 seconds later.

Burgess responded by mentioning a performance audit conducted of Education Local Option Sales Tax spending, but neither he nor any other member of the Board made any comment about the budget.

Later in the meeting, Superintendent Branch asked for approval of both the General Fund Budget and Federal Funds Budget for Fiscal Year 2024, consuming 42 seconds.

Before voting, Burgess spoke, reviewing what the General Fund Budget funds.

The single-page, summary budget available to the public does not show any of this detail.

Burgess started his comments at 1:12:29 in the video and ended at 1:15:06, for a total of 2 minutes and 37 seconds.

Meeting Totals

Altogether, the Board spent 28 minutes with the two Fiscal Year 24 Budgets in public meetings this year.

BOE Meeting 5/8/2023

Of those minutes, 9 minutes and 43 seconds were spent in comments by Board members.

None of those minutes could be described as a debate–the word Burgess used. They were comments, usually directed at Harlow.

It is impossible to know how much time the Board spent with the budgets in meetings that are not public.

By law, if three of the Board members met together to discuss the budget or any policy issue, they must have advertised the meetings and produced minutes.

No record of such meetings exists.

Surplus Allocated

Although Burgess thanked Harlow on May 1 and May 8 for showing the General Fund Balance in the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget in a way that reduces its size, he did not bring that up at the two hearings on July 24.

In the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget Harlow gave the Board on May 1, she divided 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, including $0.9 million for opening the new Dove Creek Middle School, $1.2 million for new school generators, and $750,000 for tennis court lighting at the system’s two high schools.

The Committed Fund Balance, Harlow said, is for future debt payments on the 2021 General Obligation Bonds issued by the Board. Oconee County Schools is spending more on its aggressive building program than the Education Local Option Sales Tax will generate and will have to draw on property tax revenue to retire those bonds.

The designation of these Assigned and Committed monies in the Fund Balance leaves $15.8 million as Unassigned.

Because the budget approved on June 5 showed spending ($105,970,180) exceeding Revenue ($103,851,443), Harlow reduced that Estimated Unassigned Fund Balance for the end of this fiscal year on June 30, 2024, to $13,661,263.

In the new budget Harlow projected on the screen on the morning of July 24, she showed revenue exceeding the expenditures by $133,615, and the Estimated Unassigned Fund Balance for June 30, 2024, of $15,913,615.

By setting the millage rate at 15.0, the tax generates enough money to cover the earlier projected deficit of $2,118,737 with $133,615 left over.

Detailed Budget

In the second hearing on July 24, Burgess, as is his habit, went through a series of questions of Harlow to address the request by Fincher and Ledenham at the morning meeting for a detailed budget.

“Every month you present a very detailed budget report to us at the monthly meetings,” Burgess said. “I went back and was looking at the last month’s budget meeting, budget summary that you present. And it is broken out into 14 different categories of expenditures.”

Burgess said these are for “14 different functional areas of the school system budget. But underneath those are literally dozens, if not hundreds of accounts.”

“Those are used by your office to not only budget,” he said, “but account which expenditures and then present on a monthly basis to the Board all of that detailed information. And then that information is put on our web site the day after. Those reports, every month, are put on our web site after the monthly board meeting, correct?”

Harlow agreed.

The documents Burgess was referring to are called Budget Reports, and Harlow released her most recent one as part of her package of financial reports at the June 5 meeting. It was for May of 2023, or the second to last month of the last Fiscal Year. No report has yet been released for June.

As Burgess acknowledged, such an analysis of revenue and spending is a part of budgeting, but no such document for the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget has been released publicly or is on the Oconee County Schools web site.

Fincher attended the second hearing on July 24, but he did not speak.

The video below shows Superintendent Branch demonstrating to Fincher that the monthly reports are on the Oconee County Schools web site.

Embargo Explained

Fincher, as well as the two citizens who spoke in the afternoon, John Webb and Carol Nimmons, criticized Oconee County Schools for embargoing the advertisement placed in the July 13 edition of the Enterprise.

Enterprise Editor Michael Prochaska said the paper received the legal advertisements that appeared in the July 13 edition of the paper on the afternoon of July 7 with the requirement that they be embargoed and not shared with the paper’s editorial staff prior to publication.

In the discussion with Burgess following the meeting (in the video clip below), Fincher asked ‘Why did you put an embargo on the ad?”

“It was only embargoed until the information was public,” Burgess responded.

“Now you are rationalizing what you do,” Fincher said. “You did it.”

“It wasn’t embargoed before it was public,” Burgess said. 

That is precisely what the embargo did--withhold the information before it was published.

New Versus Old Budget

During the discussion with Fincher after the meeting ended, Burgess went to the table at the front of the room where he had been sitting during the meeting and gave Fincher a paper copy of the budget projected on the screen during Harlow’s presentation at the beginning of the meeting.

BOE Meeting 6/5/2023

“When did you know what the new millage rate was?" Fincher asked.

“About late June.” Burgess responded.

“Late June?” Fincher responded.

“Around the first of July,” Burgess said.

“So why is this still on your web site,” Fincher said, referring to the budget approved at the June 5 meeting, “If this was approved in late June?” he asked, holding up new budget Burgess had just given him.

“This is he one that is being proposed today, 15 mills,” Burgess said, referring to the document he had just given Fincher.

“Then why isn’t that on the web site?” Fincher asked.

“It should be,” Burgess said. “It should be.”

As of at least 2:22 p.m. on July 25, the old budget was the only one on the Oconee County Schools web site.

OCS Annual Report, Hearing Minutes

After the July 24 meeting, residents in the county began receiving in their mailboxes a 16-page document labeled “2022-23 Annual Report” from Oconee County Schools.

On page 3 of the report, Oconee County is listed as having a millage rate of 15.0.

The millage rate last year, for Academic Year 2022-23, was 15.5, so the 15.0 is the rate the Board is being asked to approve after the final hearing on Monday.

The rate of 15.0 is “One of the Lowest in Northeast Georgia,” the report states, offering comparisons with Jackson, Oglethorpe, Barrow, and Clarke counties.

The Board also, since the July 24 meeting, has posted minutes of the morning and afternoon hearings.

Both minutes include a link to the new budget, as well as summaries of Harlow’s comments and of Burgess’ questions at both sessions.

The names and addresses of the four citizens who spoke are listed, but no summary of the comments any of the four speakers made is included in the minutes.

The Board did not video record the hearings, so the only record of the comments of those four speakers is in the video I recorded and presented in full with my post from that meeting.


The video below was shot after the tax hearings by the Oconee County Board of Education on July 24, 2023, ended, but before citizens and Board members had all left.

The full videos are in my earlier post from these hearings.

I had not included the recording of Branch with Fincher after the second hearing in that original video. It is included below.

The video below is a collection of the parts of the meetings of the Board on May 1, May 8, and June 5 in which the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget was on the agenda.

The video was made with the screen capture function of Windows.

The full videos are on the YouTube Channel of Oconee County Schools.


Carrie LeeAnn Mitchell said...

Ahhhhh, the old bait-and-switch! Well played! Here come more taxes!

Retired teacher Lawrence said...

Thanks SO much for keeping the video running despite the condescending request to turn it off! Some members of the BOE and the Superintendent's Office prefer minimum transparency.

-David Lawrence

Doug Hansford said...

The request to turn the camera off was inappropriate. They were discussing topics in a public setting related to tax money appropriations which is of public interest. Sure they would prefer to spin the issues off the record but your journalism is bringing light to the board which is much appreciated.
Doug Hansford