The estimated cost of building a third high school for Oconee County Schools is between $150 and $175 million, School Superintendent Jason Branch reported at the Community Engagement Session held at the Civic Center on Tuesday night.
That figure does not include land acquisition, which Branch estimated to be an additional “several million."
If Oconee County Schools expanded the current capacity of its two high schools from 1,500 to 2,000 by adding classrooms at the two campuses, the cost would be about $15 million at each school, for a total of $30 million, Branch said.
Branch told the audience of about 500 that it made sense to think of the choice as “long term planning” for “the next decade” rather than something that needs to be addressed immediately because neither high school is near capacity.
Branch said staff analysis shows that while North Oconee High School currently has 1,479 students enrolled, the average number of students at the school on any given period is 1,400 because students are off campus working or taking college classes.
At Oconee County High School, Branch said, enrollment is 1,315, but only 1,275 students are at the school at any given period.
Branch made his comments in a nearly half-hour-long overview of Oconee County Schools at the front the engagement session, which was presented as a chance for the community to provide input to the 2024-2030 Strategic Plan for the system.
Branch used that time to highlight the achievements of the school system and to say that, although the data show that the system has had relatively static enrollments over the last five years and actually had a small decline in enrollments this year, “we know that growth will continue” in the future.
High School Reversal
Branch’s comments about enrollments at the two high schools were different from those he made in January at the retreat held by the Board of Education at the Georgia Club just over the border in Barrow County.
|Branch, With Argo On His Left|
Branch and Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff told the Board at that meeting that they expected that North Oconee High School would be over capacity by eight students this year, while Oconee County High School would be over capacity in 2032.
The pair said in January that it is time to make decisions about how to handle anticipated high school enrollment growth and offered two options: add 25 classrooms at each school to increase the capacity of each school to 2,000 students, or build a new high school.
“What we do is next fall,” LeDuff said in January, “we’ll start asking the question and seeking guidance from the community, what they would like to do with regards to the high school population.”
Branch told the Board back in January that he did not have comparative costs of the two options, but he said he would have that information before the Community Engagement Session on Tuesday so the Board could get feedback on whether the community wants to increase capacity at the two schools or build a third high school.
Branch said in January he expects strong enrollment growth in the future and that the problem with adding capacity at the existing high schools is that it leaves unanswered what should be done when they reach 2,000 students.
Introduction Of High School Question
Branch broached the issue of how to handle the high school enrollments gradually on Tuesday night.
About 10 minutes into his comments, he said “We also last time, asked you, as we will this time, for you to think about what is the appropriate size of our schools.”
“The last five years when we were here,” he said. “We talked about 750 students at our elementary schools, 1,000 students at our middle schools, and 1,500 students at our high schools.”
“And so as we continued that conversation, and operationalized those thoughts, that led to us doing several additions at our elementary schools, standardizing our campuses at 750.”
“The last addition is being done this year at Malcom Bridge Elementary School,” he said. “We standardized our middle schools at 1,000.”
“And then we did additions as well at the high school,” he said. “As well as constructing Dove Creek Middle School. It was a $40 million project supported by our local community.”
The additions were at Oconee County High School, not the newer North Oconee High School.
More Direct Discussion
About 10 minutes later, Branch presented the audience with a chart showing capacity and enrollments at the system’s 12 schools, noting Malcom Bridge Elementary School has 574 enrolled students and a capacity of 600.
|Slide In Branch's Presentation 1|
That capacity will increase to 750 next year because of the classroom additions already underway, Branch said
“The other thing that probably jumps out at you (in the chart) is that North Oconee is getting close to capacity as well,” Branch said. “And I know there has been lots of talk in the community that at this meeting we’re going to talk about what size schools we want and should we build a third high school? Should we do additions?”
“And certainly that is a part of these conversations,” Branch said. “But I want to give you a little bit of background, a little bit of information as it relates to our high schools.”
Actual Students In Schools
“The difference between a high school and a middle and elementary is that in today’s world our students push in and they push out,” Branch said.
“So there’s lots of different movement at the high school,” he said. “And so I asked staff to look at our enrollments.”
“While we have 1,479 students at North Oconee, on any given period, the average number of students at North Oconee are just over 1,400 students. So that gives us about a 100 student breathing room in that facility.”
“Our friends right over here at Oconee County High School have an enrollment of 1,315, and they average about 1,274, 1,275 number of students each and every period,” he said. “Again, capacity is at 1,500.”
“So if you think about our high schools, I ask you to think about the fact that in this very challenging environment that we live and work in and the outstanding students that are looking for more and more challenge,” he said. “They continue to push out to go to schools and colleges around our area.”
Branch also told those gathered that the planning for Dove Creek Middle School also had been “really a decade long process.”
“We really are once again talking about long term planning, but a third high school in the next decade with some multiplies for cost would be somewhere between $150 million and $175 million,” Branch said.
“That includes our athletic facilities,” he said. “That does not include land acquisition. So we would have several million in land acquisition.”
“If we looked at doing additions at our two high schools in the next decade, to say 2,000 students, we’re looking at somewhere between $12 and $15 million per school, so, for round numbers, we’ll say $30 million for those facilities.”
“And again that would be something we would look at over the next decade,” he said.
Branch said students loyalties to the two high schools already are strong, even at the elementary and middle school stages, and a new high school with the necessary redistricting would have great impact.
“So if we were to do an addition, over the next decade with what we could consider pretty rapid growth, if we look at that, we do believe that if we took our schools to 2,000 student capacity, that that would not necessitate the redistricting process,” Branch said.
“So we are here to talk about a lot more than that,” Branch said. “But I wanted to make sure that we covered those areas.”
The meeting on Tuesday had been billed as a listening session, but Branch was very open in telling the assembled group how he thought they should evaluate Oconee County Schools.
“I hope that as you have your conversations at your tables, that you will provide honest dialog, provide your opinions,” he said. “That’s what we want. That’s why we are here.”
Branch then showed a slide recognizing 25 businesses and organizations that partner with the schools. He also said many of these partners were in the room at the tables.
“The work that you do to show appreciation for our staff, but also the work that you do to extend learning for our students, is something that really separates us as a district and as a community,” Branch said.
Branch then presented five slides that listed “Accolades and Achievements” of Oconee County schools, including the rankings by U.S. News & World Report and Niche.
Branch said “At times we get individuals saying, you know what, you brag too much about our kids. We talk about being Number 1. We talk about this. We talk about that.”
Branch said school administrators are like proud parents.
“And so we love our kids and we’re going to continue to celebrate all the great things that they do,” he said. “And all the world class educators that do that work. We believe world class organization, world class students, world class educators is what we are all about.”
Branch also praised the Board of Education, telling the group that “we can’t have an outstanding school system without a foundational governance team.”
“Outstanding school systems have outstanding continuity in their leadership,” Branch said.
Three of the seats on the Board will be up for election next year, and Branch said “Any time you make a change on the team, at any level, then you have a new team.”
“And so any time we can keep consistency within our leadership, both at our schools and in our governing team, that that is going to aid in the work that we do,” Branch said.
Branch had been preceded in the session by School Board Chair Kim Argo, who also told those present how good Oconee County Schools are.
Argo had introduced the other three Board Members present, Tim Burgess, Ryan Hammock, and Michael Ransom, and conveyed the “regrets” of Amy Parrish for not attending.
“This session helps us unfold the road map for where we are going,” Argo said.
“Since our last strategic planning process that began five years ago right here in this very room, Oconee County has enjoyed unparalleled educational success and tremendous growth. But we cannot and will not rest on our laurels. We are forever striving to move forward.”
Branch presented a slide to the Board showing growth in enrollments from 2013-2014 to the current year.
|Slide In Branch's Presentation 2|
Enrollments grew sharply from 2013-2014, but enrollment growth has been modest every year since 2019-2020, with only one of those years producing growth of more than 200 students.
Branch made no mention of that recent pattern.
“You can see that Oconee County schools remain one of the fastest growing school systems in our state,” Branch said, referring to an earlier slide, which reported that Oconee County Schools grew by 56 percent since 2010. The slide did not show any state comparisons.
“Since 2010, Oconee County Schools has grown over 56 percent. Say that again. Since 2010, we’ve grown over 56 percent,” Branch said again later. The slide he was referring to this time (above, right) presented data only back to 2013-2014.
“We are pleased to tell you today that we actually have a reprieve in our growth this year. You can see that we are down about six students,” Branch said, getting laughs from the audience.
“So we know it is a refreshing reprieve this year,” Branch said, “but we remain committed to have that conversation to making sure that we’re ready to have first rate classrooms for all of our students as we know that growth will continue.”
“To put a point on it, in 2000 we had 5,427 students,” he said. “So you can see that in the state of Georgia, percentage wise, we continue to grow very rapidly.”
No state data were presented in any of the slides.
Schedule of Activity
After Branch completed his comments, he turned the microphone over to Steve Barker, director of strategic planning services at Georgia School Boards Association.
“I’ll tell you, you are known across the state,” Barker said. “Those stats and figures. You don’t have to come here to hear that. It’s in the media and its in the press.”
Barker told the group that the input the group was about to give on Oconee County Schools would go next to a Strategic Planning Group appointed by Branch for analysis.
That Group will then pass the materials to an Action Team made up of school staff.
The Strategic Plan is scheduled to go to the Board of Education in May or June for final action and adoption.
Forty minutes into the meeting, Barker turned the microphone over to his colleague, Lynita Jackson, Strategic Planning Services and Vision Project Manager.
“You all do great things in Oconee. We’re really excited to be here,” she said. “But it not about hearing us. It is hearing your feedback. We want to hear your thinking. What’s working? Where have we got to kind of tweak? What are some opportunities? What are some threats or challenges?”
When individuals entered the room at the beginning of the session, they had been asked to pick one of about 50 tables in the room.
They joined a moderator, who had been trained and assigned to each table by Jackson.
In her comments, Jackson told the group they were going to get a chance to respond to four questions, that the moderator would write their answers on a sheet of paper, and that these answers would be hung up on the walls around the room.
The four questions were:
What are your observed STRENGTHS of Oconee County Schools? What are your observed areas in need of improvement for Oconee County Schools? What opportunities do you see ahead for Oconee County Schools? What challenges/threats do you see ahead for Oconee County Schools?
Each of the questions also offered examples of answers that were appropriate, and the final question included “Tremendous Growth” as an example. High School Enrollment growth was not listed on any of the questions.
At the end of the meeting, each participant was given a sheet containing dots that they were told to put next to the answers on the pages around the room that they felt were most important.
The meeting, originally scheduled to run from 6 to 9 p.m., ended about a half hour early.
Composition Of Audience
The Community Engagement Session had been open to anyone, and an invitation to the session had been posted on the Oconee County Schools web site.
|Teachers Of The Year Being Recognized|
Shortly after Branch had begun to speak, he praised the most recently designated Teachers Of The Year and asked current and past recipients of the recognition to stand.
A large number of teachers stood.
Four people who had participated in the session sent me an email after the meeting saying that their tables were dominated by teachers and Oconee County School staff. Some of the three reported that they had friends in the room who had reported the same thing to them.
I wrote to Board Chair Argo the next day and asked if she could explain the large number of teachers present.
Argo wrote that “teachers were not required to attend the meeting.”
“Each of the tables had a facilitator and one OCS employee with a computer to put down the ideas of the table,” she wrote. “All facilitators were non-employees; some were retired educators.”
“Community members and staff were welcome to choose any table they desired,” she wrote. “This model is true to the GSBA process. Any staff members were welcome to participate; many have children in the system.”
“A digital survey will be sent out soon to continue to gather input from the community, parents, and staff,” Argo wrote.
I recorded the video below.
Argo began to speak at 2:45
Branch began speaking at 5:15 in the video.
Barker began to speak at 33:57.
Jackson started her comments at 40:42.
Starting at 46:10 in the video, I assembled a number of clips showing the exact questions posed to the participants and examples of the group deliberations as well as of the answers hung on the walls around the room.