Thursday, August 24, 2023

Line Item Budget For Oconee County Schools Details $15.8 Million Increase In Spending For Fiscal Year 2024

***Spending For Superintendent: $284,810***

Oconee County Schools last week released a detailed budget for Fiscal Year 2024 documenting a $3.9 million increase in teacher salaries and a $4.9 million increase in healthcare costs for certified employees.

Those increases and the others spelled out in the July 2023 Budget Report explain in detail the $15.8 million increase in spending in the Fiscal Year 2024 budget adopted by the Board in June.

The Board had refused to release to the public details of the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget until its meeting last week, and that lack of information played prominently in the critical comments made by three citizens who addressed the Board at its meeting last week.

Other large increases documented in the released July 2023 Budget Report are $1.1 million in new school administration costs, $1.6 million in new maintenance and operations costs, and $0.6 million in added student transportation costs.

The July 2023 Budget Report shows an increase of $242,064 in spending for salary for bus drivers over last year and a $153,600 increase in spending for health care for transportation employees.

In executive session at the end of the meeting last week, the Board extended the contract for Oconee County Schools Superintendent Jason Branch for three years, through June 30 of 2027. The current contract does not expire until June 30 of next year.

The Board also increased Branch’s base salary from $241,020 to $253,071 for the current fiscal year.

Salary is only part of the compensation Branch receives through the contract, and the July 2023 Budget Report shows an increase from $272,490 in the line item budget for Superintendent in the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget to $284,810 in the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget.

Branch’s Salary Compared

Comparative data on salaries of superintendents across the state are available from the state’s Open Georgia Transparency in Government web site.

Branch Official Photo And Sections Of New Contract
Click To Enlarge

An analysis of those data, which I downloaded, shows that for Fiscal Year 2022–the most recent year available–Oconee County Schools reported Branch’s total salary as $266,854.

The Fiscal Year 2022 detailed budget listed the Superintendent line item as $267,729.

That $266,854 made Branch the 25th highest paid superintendent in the state in Fiscal Year 2022, but the fifth highest paid among the top 25 schools in terms of ratio of salary to students in the system.

I downloaded the enrollment data from the Georgia Department of Education web site.

Branch was paid $31.28 for each of the 8,531 students enrolled in Oconee County Schools in October of 2022.

The superintendents at City of Marietta, City of Buford, City of Carrollton, and Baldwin County school systems all received more on a per student basis.

Clarke County’s superintendent in Fiscal Year 2022 was paid $239,842, or $19.44 per student in the 12,340 student system.

Barrow County’s superintendent was paid $214,148, or $14.39 for each of the 14,882 students in that system.

Clarke and Barrow are the two county systems closest to the northern part of Oconee County, where most of the population and all of the county’s schools are located.

Other County Salaries

According to the OPENGOVPAY web site, Branch is the highest paid public employee in Oconee County by a wide margin.

In 2021, the most recent year for which comparisons are possible, Oconee County Administrator Justin Kirouac made $135,000.

In that Fiscal Year, Oconee County Schools reported to the state that Branch’s salary was $268,608, and the line item budget for that year for Superintendent was $267,729.

In 2021, Angela Elder-Johnson made $127,125 as Clerk Of Courts for Oconee County.

Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell received $123,607.

Two county department heads were paid more than $100,000 in Fiscal Year 2021, as was Jennifer Riddle, Tax Commissioner.

Other county department heads, and even Sheriff James Hale, made less than $100,000 that year.

Other OCS Salaries

Branch’s salary also dwarfs the salaries of others in the Oconee County School system.

In Fiscal Year 2022, when Branch was paid $266,854, the closest paid administrator received $137,932.

Twenty-seven employees other than Branch received salaries of more than $100,000.

In March of this year, then Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow presented for illustration to the Board a salary of a teacher with a master’s degree and 15 years of professional service.

The salary that teacher would receive, Harlow said, was $65,297, or less than a quarter of the $272,490 listed on the Budget Report for the Superintendent for the 2023 Fiscal Year.

First Speaker

The three speakers who signed up to address the Board during the designated Public Comment section of the meeting on Aug. 14 had in common a concern with Board spending as reflected in the budget adopted in June and with transparency.

The first of those citizens, Pam Hendrix, asked the Board to consider creating a Financial Oversight Committee.

This “would give some oversight and some ability–more ability--for the public to be involved,” she said.

“You give a one page summary of a budget, and in that budget there’s no debt service mentioned,” she said. “The millage rate was published as 15 mills before you had the last public meeting.”

Hendrix was referring to the Oconee County Schools Annual Report listing the 15.0 millage rate. It was put in mailboxes throughout the county before the Board adopted the rate.

“So that tells us that it didn’t matter if we came here and were frustrated and asked you to lower the millage,” she said. “You weren’t going to do it. It had already been published.”

“I just feel like you are not being careful with our money,” Hendrix said.

Second Speaker

“For the last couple of months I’ve been looking for a detailed, line item budget, Ian Taylor told the Board.

Taylor said he was told by Steven Colquitt, Director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, who also is the open records officer, that “No responsive record” exists.

Taylor said when he asked Colquitt to clarify, Colquitt said “the record is currently in process.” That literally would mean the detailed budget was completed after the summary budget was approved by the Board.

Taylor also said he went online at the Carl Vision Institute of Government (CVIOG), where school systems are required to archive their budgets, and the “last two budgets that you submitted to CVIOG are not correct, not the ones that you’ve adopted. That’s a mistake. Not the correct millage rate.”

The budget submitted for Fiscal Year 2024 lists the millage rate at 15.5. That rate was dropped to 15.0 before it was adopted by the Board on July 31.

The budget submitted for Fiscal Year 2023 lists the millage rate of 16.25, which was the original rate before the Board dropped the rate to 15.5 at its meeting on Aug. 1 of last year.

That same budget also is incorrectly listed on the Oconee County Schools web page under Business Services.

“I really would like you to consider publishing a detailed, line item budget in accordance with the law,” Taylor said.

Third Speaker

Chris Herring, a member of the county Planning Commission, told the Board he had looked at the Consumer Price Index (CPI), an indicator of inflation, and at student growth for the last five years.

“Student growth has been about 2.2 percent cumulative year over year,” Herring said, “12 percent actual from (20)18 to 2023.”

(Based on the official October census submitted to the Georgia Department of Education, Oconee County School enrollment grew 3.5 percent from 2017 to 2018, 1.5 percent from 2018 to 2019, 1.0 percent from 2019 to 2020, 2.4 percent from 2020 to 2021, and 1.3 percent from 2021 to 2022.)

Herring said the budget had grown at an appropriate rate given inflation and student growth until this year. “This year it is just like someone just opened the spigots,” he said.

“I’d like to see a balance sheet and ELOST and anything that’s related to construction spending,” Herring said, referring to the Education Local Option Sales Tax.

Herring said he would like “to also see how is the Board appraising our superintendent each year. It is a mystery to me.”

“You’ve already heard about the line item budget,” he said.

“There also is an Open Records Act in the state of Georgia,” Herring said, “and that says that a detailed agenda shall be available within two weeks of a meeting."

“So I’d like to see a detailed agenda,” he said. “What is on the web site--there’s nothing there.”

The Board did not respond to any of the comments from the three citizens.

Budget Analysis

Oconee County Schools has not yet released its Budget Report for June, the final report of Fiscal Year 2023, but the Budget Report each month contains the original detailed budget for that year.

Detailed Budget Report Fiscal Year 2024 (Revenue)
Click To Enlarge

It was that Budget Report for Fiscal Year 2023 that Superintendent Branch and Board Member Tim Burgess referred citizens to at the tax hearings when the citizens asked for the detailed budget for Fiscal Year 2024.

I downloaded the Budget Report for May of 2023, the final report available from the last Fiscal Year, and the Budget Report for July of 2023, the first report for Fiscal Year 2024, to make detailed comparisons of changes in the two budgets as approved by the Board.

On the revenue side, the comparison shows the growth of $6.7 million in revenue from Ad Valorem or property taxes, based on the millage rate of 15.0 set by the Board, and an additional $7.6 million in state funding through the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula.

The amount of money the county is required to contribute to the QBE funding increased by $1.3 million, reflecting the growth in the county tax digest. The county is required to contribute the amount of revenue produced by 5 mills in taxes.

The result is an increase in QBE funding of $6.3 million, rather than the gross $7.6 million.

Overall revenue, across all categories, increased by $14.2 million, to $106.1 million.

Overall spending increased by $15.8 million from $90.2 million in Fiscal Year 2023 to $106 million in Fiscal Year 2023, or from $10,511 per student to $12,204. Revenue exceeded spending by $133,615.

Administrative Costs

General Administrative costs increased by $30,713 from Fiscal Year 2023 to Fiscal Year 2024, and the largest part of that increase was for the category “Superintendent.”

The figure went up by $12,320 from $272,490 in Fiscal Year 2023 to $284,810 in Fiscal Year 2024.

The actual budget item on the state mandated form is SUPT, RESA DIR, but Colquitt told me in an email message on Aug. 22 that Oconee County does not have a director of RESA, which stands for Regional Education Service Agency.

School administrative costs increased $1.1 million from Fiscal Year 2023 to Fiscal Year 2024, with the largest increase ($369,423) for Assistant Principal salaries, followed by $338,520 for State Health costs for school administrative personnel.

Teacher Retirement System contributions increased by $122,209.

The salary increase for School Principals was $41,937.

Oconee County Schools opened its new Dove Creek Middle School for the school year just getting underway and initiated a new school district and busing plan to accommodate the new school.

Maintenance And Transportation

The impact of the opening of Dove Creek Middle School and the resultant redistricting is reflected in the Maintenance and Operations parts of the budgets and in the Transportation section.

Detailed Budget Report Fiscal Year 2024 (Administration)
Click To Enlarge

The $1.6 million increase in maintenance and operations includes an increase of $384,189 in Repair and Maintenance and an increase of $378,109 in Custodial Personnel.

It also includes a $226,324 increase in Energy costs and $200,000 increase in Other Purchased Services.

The $550,007 in increased Student Transportation costs includes the $242,064 in spending for salary for bus drivers and the $153,600 increase in spending for health care for transportation employees.

It also includes $100,000 increase in Energy costs and increases of $58,299 for Maintenance/Transportation Mechanic and $54,165 for Technology Repair/Maintenance.

Financial Reports

Dan Smith, whom the Board hired on July 17 to serve as Chief Financial Officer on an interim basis, gave the Board its financial reports including the July 2023 Budget Report.

Financial Reports At Board Meeting 8/14/2023
CFO Smith Official Picture Inserted

“We have our first budget report,” Smith told the Board.

“The second page is the summary by function,” he said. “This takes each of the functions and breaks it down into the individual objects as dictated by the Department of Education Chart of Accounts.”

Smith also told the Board that the General Fund Cash Balance as of July 31 was $43.1 million, down from $48.4 in the June 30 Cash Balance report given to the Board by then CFO Liz Harlow at the July 17 meeting

Smith told the Board that the school system had collected $86,791 in ELOST revenue in June, up 11.6 percent from June a year earlier, and that collections over the last 14 months are averaging 16.2 percent over that same month a year earlier.

So far, Smith reported, Oconee County Schools has collected $5.7 million in the first six months of this ELOST, against a projected total from the tax of $37.9 million.

The Board has borrowed just less than $43 million against that revenue and will have to make bond payments of $46.7 million by 2033, according to Smith's report.

The ELOST report Smith gave the Board shows $4.9 million in state funding, $.9 million in interest, and $6.6 million in revenue transferred from the General Fund for ELOST projects.

No member of the Board had any comment on or question about the financial reports Smith delivered.


Oconee County Schools has had considerable turnover at the position of Chief Financial Officer since Randy Morrison stepped down from that position when he retired in the summer of 2013.

The Board hired Smith, who had served as CFO of Fulton County Schools and Director of Human Resources at Gwinnett County Schools, to replace Morrison.

In 2016, Smith returned to Gwinnett County Schools, and the Board hired Saranna Charping as Chief Financial Officer.

Charping left Oconee County Schools in June of 2021, and Harlow, who had been director of finance under Charping, was named as her replacement.

Harlow stepped down on July 31 of this year.

The Personnel Report from the executive session of the July 17 meeting lists Smith as a Rehire at 49 percent.

Branch’s Contract

The minutes of the Aug. 14 Board meeting did not contain the new contract for Branch, so I asked Colquitt in an email at 9:45 a.m. on Aug. 21 to send me a copy.

I told Collquitt he could consider the request as covered by the Georgia Open Records Act if he would not provide the copy without that stipulation.

Colquitt did not acknowledge receipt of my request, so I resent him a reminder at 12:01 p.m. on Aug. 22 and again at 8:06 p.m. on Aug. 23.

At 9:54 a.m. today (Aug. 24), I wrote Colquitt again, telling him I had delayed this post for three days while waiting on him to send me a copy of the contract and that I would wait a few hours longer before simply reporting that he refused to give me the contract.

At 4:59 p.m. today Colquitt sent me a copy of the contract without an apology or explanation for the delay.

Dates Of The Contract

The contract the Board approved on Aug. 14 is nearly identical to the contract it approved on Aug. 2, 2021.

That Aug. 2, 2021, contract does not expire until June 30, 2024, and the contract approved last week extends that contract through June 30, 2026.

The old contract said the Board would notify Branch, in writing, by Aug. 31 of 2022, if it intended to extend the contract beyond June 30, 2024.

The new contract says the Board will notify Branch, in writing, by Aug. 31, 2024, if the contract is to be extended beyond June 30, 2024.

The personnel reports adopted by the Board in open meetings in July 18, Aug. 1, and Aug. 8 of last year contain no letter or record of a Board vote on such a letter


Both the 2021 and 2023 contracts state that the “Superintendent shall be responsible for the administration of the School District, consistent with the policies enacted by the Board.”

Both contracts state that the “Board shall annually evaluate the performance of SUPERINTENDENT, which evaluation shall be in writing.”

The Board is to complete the evaluation on or before May 30 of each year and meet with the superintendent “in closed executive session to evaluate his performance.”

“All documents related to the evaluation of SUPERINTENDENT shall be confidential and shall not be released by either the School district or SUPERINTENDENT, except as required by law,” both contracts state.


Branch is to receive an annual base salary of $253,071, according to the new contract, paid in installments across 12 months.

The base salary was set at $234,000, in the 2021 contract.

Both contracts state that the Board can adjust that salary during the terms of the contract.

Colquitt said in an email message on Aug. 17 that Branch’s salary last year was $241,020.

Both contracts state that Branch is “entitled to receive across-the-board pay increases granted to Certificated Personnel by the Georgia General Assembly.”

Colquitt said that the new salary of $253,071 reflects that 5 percent salary increase.

Both contracts also state that Branch is to receive a $1,000 monthly travel allowance, payable at the end of the month, and compensation for up to five days of accumulated and accrued annual leave, computed based on his daily rate of pay.

Both contracts state that if the Board opts to terminate unilaterally Branch’s contract in the next two years the Board is obligated to pay Branch a settlement sum equal to 12 months of his salary.


The video below is on the Oconee County Schools YouTube Channel.

Public Communication begins at 9:03 in the video.

The recording does not include the images of the speakers or of the staff members who speak to the Board.

1 comment:

Jim Gaither said...

Thanks for the informative report, Lee.