Pam Hendrix used the public comment section of the Oconee County Board of Education meeting on Monday to tell the Board she thinks it should put a “pause” on new school construction and possibly on construction more generally.
Hendrix reminded the Board that it was told last week that enrollment is down slightly–by six students–over the start of the last school year.
“This could be a new trend,” Hendrix said, noting cultural shifts in child rearing, that home schooling has become very popular, and that the county school system is in competition with three private schools in the county.
Hendrix also presented the Board with data she had obtained from the Oconee County Planning and Code Enforcement Department that show that residential building permits for the last two years have been half of what they were five years ago.
And residential permits for the first eight months of this year are much lower than they were in the first eight months of 2022.
Hendrix is a Watkinsville attorney long active in the Oconee County Republican Party. She ran in 2010 for Superior Court Judge in the Western Judicial Circuit and for Tax Commissioner in 2012.
As is usually the case, no member of the Board responded to Hendrix’ comments.
At the end of the meeting, the Board voted unanimously to seek partial state funding for a $3.5 million renovation and modification to Rocky Branch Elementary School.
Near the end of its regular meetings, the Board allows citizens who have signed up in advance to speak for three minutes. Hendrix was the only person who spoke at the meeting on Monday.
|Hendrix Before Board 9/18/2023|
Hendrix told the Board “I'm here to speak for the taxpayers” and “I hope to talk about three things in my three minutes.”
“First of all,” she said, “enrollment was a little bit down. Not a lot. Six students. But I just think we need to be very careful that this could be a new trend.”
Hendrix said one explanation “could be some cultural trends. People are not getting married. They're not having children.”
Hendrix added that “during COVID, parents were not happy with what they saw when the schools went online. And moreover parents realized they could home school for the first time ever because they had to.”
“Some children found out that online learning worked well for them, and they haven't returned to our schools,” she said.
“We have three private schools in this county that are I think thriving and so we have to keep that in mind,” she said. Athens Academy, Prince Avenue Christian School, and Westminster Christian Academy all offer elementary and secondary programs.
Hendrix told the Board that “I also made a trip up to the county (planning) office today and I have a report of all the building permits from 2015 to 2023.”
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Hendrix focused on the permits for single family dwellings, mobile homes, and multi-family homes.
Hendrix said she received the data from Linda Patterson in Planning and Code Enforcement, and Patterson confirmed to me in an email that the data Hendrix reported to the Board came from her.
They show that the county issued 393 residential permit in 2015, and 405 in 2016.
But those numbers have dropped sharply to 195 in 2021 and 210 in 2022.
So far this year, through August, the county has issued 139 residential building permits.
In the first eight months of 2022, it had issued 172.
“So we're trending down,” Hendrix told the Board. “So I just ask that possibly we put a pause, particularly on any new school and possibly even on some construction.”
“Because what we don't want to get is schools with no students,” she said. “I mean that would be a disaster.”
Second and Third Points
Hendrix rushed in making her second and third points.
She said a recent article in The Wall Street Journal said Chromebooks, which Oconee County Schools issues to each student, often end up in the trash, creating “E-waste.”
Chromebooks “actually have expiration dates and probably quicker than books,” Hendrix said.
Finally, she asked the Board not to approve a contract with ESS for staffing solutions.
“I don't understand why we can't staff our own schools,” she said.
The Board unanimously approved a contract with ESS later in the meeting.
Rocky Branch Elementary School
The final action item on the agenda for the Board was approval of an application for a Capital Outlay Project with the state for renovation and modification at Rocky Branch Elementary School.
“What this does is allow us to take the first step and draw it down to State funds necessary to do the project at Rocky Branch,” Branch told the Board.
“We need to move forward with that in order to be able to draw down these funds should we determine that's the next appropriate step going forward,” he said.
Board Member Tim Burgess asked “is this a renovation project that was in our initial Five-Year Plan for ELOST that we talked about?” ELOST is for Education Local Option Sales Tax.
Branch said Burgess was correct, and Burgess followed with “so this is, we're applying for the state component of a project that was in our plan in a couple of years out to do some renovations at that school?”
“Correct,” Branch said, “and then we would determine the renovations going forward and then put it out for bid and then bring forward for Board consideration. But this is just the first step. Right.”
The application for the state funding lists the total cost of the renovations and modifications as $3,510,500, with the state being asked to contribute $526,216.
Dan Smith, Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, presented the Board with its usual financial reports.
|Smith Before Board 9/18/2023|
Smith said that ELOST collections exceeded $1 million in July, the second time collections have exceeded that benchmark.
The collection was up nearly 4 percent from the same month a year earlier.
The rolling average of collections is 16.5 percent higher than a year earlier, Smith said.
Smith said Oconee and its partner schools had agreed to sell the Rutland Academy building in Athens-Clarke County, and Oconee County would receive about $259,000 from the sale.
Rutland Academy serves students with emotional and behavioral disorders.
Branch told the Board before it approved the contract for the sale that Oconee County will use services of Social Circle and Walton County to replace those of Rutland.
The video below is on the YouTube Channel of Oconee County Schools.
Smith made his report to the Board at 14:06.
Hendrix spoke to the Board at 18:55.
Branch introduced the action items at 22:30.