Thursday, November 09, 2023

Citizen At Oconee County School Board Meeting Questions Calculations In School System Annual Report Distributed To Mailboxes In County

***Also Questions Audience Composition At Listening Session***

Pam Hendrix told the Oconee County Board of Education at its meeting on Monday that she and other citizens know the county has a great school system.

“I want to commend everybody for that,” she said.

Hendrix said she had two questions, however, that she wanted to have answered.

The first was why the calculation of the per student expenditures listed in the most recent Oconee County Schools Annual Report sent to citizens was obviously in error. The per student expenditure is much higher than listed in the document.

Hendrix also wanted to know why half of the people at her table and at other tables at what was labeled a community listening session held by Oconee County Schools at the Civic Center in September were teachers.

Hendrix raised her questions 51 minutes into a 57-minute-long meeting. She was the only citizen who had signed up to use the three minutes allotted per speaker for comment.

Before Hendrix spoke, Superintendent Jason Branch and other administrators reported a long list of accomplishments of Oconee County Schools students, administrators, and even School Board members.

Branch’s report led Board Member Tim Burgess to praise the superintendent for talking about the performances of the students. He criticized “our local newspaper” and “bloggers” for focusing on “negative things” rather than student accomplishments.

The Board, in the last minutes of the meeting, approved the hiring of a new chief financial officer for the school system, put onto the table for discussion a school calendar for School Year 2025-2026, and agreed to spend $567,184 over the next five years for Wide Area Network services for the system.

Hendrix’s First Question

Hendrix, a Watkinsville attorney who ran in 2010 for Superior Court Judge in the Western Judicial Circuit and for Tax Commissioner in 2012, has spoken up at Board meetings in the past, including on Sept. 18.

Hendrix Referring To Annual Report
(Screenshot 11/6/2023)

At that meeting, she asked the Board to put a “pause” on new school construction and possibly on construction more generally because of the leveling of growth in student enrollments.

On Monday, Hendrix said she recognized the quality of the local schools, “but I am here, as I often say, to represent the taxpayer, and I think it's always a good idea to try to do the best you can for the least amount of cost.”

Hendrix said “I'm kind of looking at a per student cost: what do we spend in Oconee per student?”

“I know, when I moved to Oconee in 2008, we were spending in the ($)7,000 range, ($)7,000 per student.”

“We got this nice little--I get this every year in the mail--the Annual Report,” Hendix said, holding up the 2022-2023 Annual Report mailed out by Oconee County Schools in late July just before the Board approved the millage rate of 15.0 for the current year.

Hendrix pointed out that the Annual Report included the millage rate before the Board actually had approved it.

The mailed-out report lists the number of students in the system as 8,547 and the Operating Budget as $105,970,180, as Hendrix pointed out to the Board.

Calculating Per Pupil Spending

Given the figures in the report mailed to citizens of the county, the expenditure per student should be $12,399, as Hendrix correctly said. The Annual Report lists the Expenditure Per Pupil as $10,497.

Click To Enlarge

“I'm trying to understand, are we spending ($)10,000, ($)12,000?” Hendrix asked. “That's a pretty big difference, and I don't know whether it was a math error. I don't know what it is. I would like to know. I'd like somebody to address that.”

In the final Fiscal Year 2024 budget adopted by the Board, expenditure per student is listed as $12,204. That is based on the nearly $106 million budget for expenditures in the budget and an estimated 8,683 students.

The official count of students at Oconee County Schools this October actually was 8,535. Based on that enrollment figure and the $106 million budget, expenditure per student is $12,416.

The Annual Report mailed to citizens in July included a small chart that compared Per Pupil Expenditures for Oconee, Barrow, Oglethorpe, Jackson, and Clarke county school systems.

At $10,497, Oconee County has the lowest Per Pupil Expenditure among the five, and the chart says Oconee County is “#1 Financial Efficiency In Georgia.”

At $12,416, Oconee County is spending more per student than Barrow and Oglethorpe counties.

The Fiscal Year 2023 budget had listed expenditure per student at $10,511, based on an estimated enrollment of 8,579. But the actual student enrollment in October of last year was 8,531, meaning that the actual expenditure per student was $10,569, or nearly $2,000 less than this year.

Hendrix’s Second Question

“The second thing,” Hendrix told the Board, “is I went on--I believe it was September 19th--to that Strategic, the community strategic planning meeting at the Oconee Civic Center.”

“I enjoyed it,” she continued. “I had attended the previous one several years ago.”

“This year I had many friends out at various tables, and we all noticed something--that about half of each table--there were 8 to 10 people at each table--well four or five of the people at my table were teachers, and that seemed to be consistent throughout.”

“So, you know, we were asked what's strong points and what's improving,” she said. “Well, I think the number one choice that night was to up the salaries.”

“I just kind of felt like that those should be at two different times,” Hendrix said. “I feel like there should be a meeting for the teachers and then a meeting for the taxpayers.”

None of the Board members had a response to the calculation problem Hendrix raised, but Board Chair Kim Argo said the room at the Civic Center on Sept. 19 was filled with teachers because many of the school system’s teachers live in Oconee County.

The Annual Report mailed out by Oconee County Schools in July lists the number of certified employees, which includes teachers, of Oconee County Schools as 722, and Superintendent Jason Branch said at that meeting in September that 500 people had turned out.

Superintendent’s Report

In his Superintendent’s Report on Monday, Branch listed a number of accomplishments of Oconee County Schools, as he usually does in his report to the Board.

Oconee County Elementary School and Oconee County Primary School were named Blue Ribbon Lighthouse Schools of Excellence, he said.

“There are only 289 of those schools in the United States, and eight of those are currently in Oconee County,” he said. “So congratulations to Oconee Elementary and Oconee Primary for the outstanding work that they've done--that they really do on a daily basis.”

Branch next acknowledged the upcoming National School Psychology Week and the work of members of the staff who contribute in that area and then thanked the nutrition staff for work they will be doing preparing Thanksgiving meals.

“The next title of this area that I'm talking about says Perfection at the top of it,” Branch said. “We had John Nesbit and William Yin at Oconee County High School make perfect 1600s on the SAT.”

“We want to congratulate those young people as well as Songhan Son at North Oconee who made a five on her ACT drawing exam. She's one of only 308 students in the entire world that have done this in the art category.”

SAT and ACT are college entrance exams.

“So just some phenomenal Perfection taking place in our schools and by our students,” Branch said. “I want to congratulate those students and also the educators and family members that have poured into that.”

Branch continued with acknowledgments, including noting that the Oconee County Board of Education has been awarded Exemplary Board Status for 2023 by the Georgia School Boards Association, a ranking it has held since 2015.

Burgess Responses

“Just a comment,” Board Member Burgess said when Branch had finished.

“Jason, I appreciate you bringing forward some of these things and sort of put them out there for the record about the incredible things going on in the school system, especially the example of the three students you mentioned who reached Perfection,” he said.

“You know, 1,600 on an SAT and being one of 300 to make a score on an AP exam,” he continued. “I mean that's pretty remarkable. That's pretty remarkable.”

“You won't read about those things in our local newspaper. You won't hear about that from bloggers who write about what goes in our school system,” Burgess said.

“So I think it's important that you bring those forward--at least put them out there for people who are interested in what's going on in our school system,” Burgess said.

“We recognize incredible work, incredible effort, incredible preparation that's going on in a really good school system, as opposed to what a lot of people want to focus on--the more negative things and are not student related things that you're bringing forward.”

“So I appreciate you bringing that, and I appreciate Steven doing the hard work to put that out on our website so that people who are interested in following those things and who are interested in some of the positive things going on school system can follow that and know about what's going on,” Burgess continued.

Steven Colquitt, Director Communications for Oconee County Schools, had sent out news releases about Nesbit and Yin and about Son on Nov. 2, according to Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise.

Prochaska used a picture of Son in a large story at the top of page A8 in today’s paper (Nov. 9), the first paper following the news release, and reported on her score and the scores of Nesbitt and Yin in a story with the picture. Prochaska said the story was written before Burgess made his complaint.

Colquitt refuses to send me news releases from Oconee County Schools, though I have requested that he do so. I get the news releases when he posts them on the system web site and often include material from them in my posts.

Chief Financial Officer

At the end of the meeting, the Board approved the hiring of LaWanda Hankins as Chief Financial Officer, effective Dec. 4 of this year. Hankins at present is Executive Director Budgets and Financial Reporting at Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Hankins will replace Liz Harlow, who stepped down as Chief Financial Officer effective July 31.

Dan Smith, whom the Board hired on July 17 to serve as Chief Financial Officer on an interim basis, gave the monthly financial reports to the Board on Monday.

The Oct. 31 Cash Balance Report shows a balance of $32.6 million in the General Fund, down from $36.6 million on Sept. 30.

As of the end of October, Oconee County Schools had collected less than 2 percent of the expected $47 million in ad valorem tax revenue. Property tax bills are due on Nov. 15.

Oconee County Schools has received a third of the $53.6 million in state funding under the Quality Basic Education Formula.

Collections for the Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) in September were up just less than 5 percent over September of a year earlier, and that rate of increase is the smallest recorded in the last year.

The rate of increase had been 12.2 percent in August, down from 15.9 percent in July.

Collection for what is called ELOST VI began in January, and Oconee County Schools has collected $7.8 million of the projected $37.9 million take from the tax.

Burgess On ELOST Collections

In September of 2022, ELOST collections had been up 17.8 percent over a year earlier, and Board Member Burgess made reference to that when Smith had finished his reports.

Smith Responding To Burgess (Center)
(Screenshot 11/6/2023)

“Just a comment,” Burgess said when Argo recognized him.

“Now I, too, noticed the drop in the ELOST collections from what had been months and months and months of, you know, double digit increases, which was just kind of hard to imagine how long that could go on.”

“So I assume at some point we returned to some sense of normalcy on five or six increases,” he said. “But I did then, I looked back at the five percent increase that we got this month and what that was a year ago. And that was over a month a year ago that was almost 18 percent.”

“So that's a five percent increase on top of what, an 18 percent increase a year ago, so it's still growing at a significant clip. It's just finally slowed down to something that's maybe more reasonable as opposed to what we've been seeing the last 18 months. So, interesting.”

“But I do want to say, your predecessor didn't have to proceed over, didn't have to preside over any 5 percent increases," Burgess told Smith. "She always brought in...”

Burgess’ final words were drowned out by laughter.

“I'll work on that next month,” Smith replied.

Teaching And Learning, Technology Reports

Susan Stancil , Chief Academic Officer for Oconee County Schools, reviewed the ACT scores and graduation rates for the system’s two high schools before turning to an update on the Strategic Plan being developed for the system.

Stancil Before Board (Screenshot 11/6/2023)

“We've checked lots of things off on our timeline,” she said. One of those was the Sept. 19 Community Strategic Planning Event that Hendrix had referenced.

Stancil said “we will have our strategic planning team meeting (this week) and, in January, we will follow that up with our action team meetings and then start the work developing our goals, initiatives, and action steps.”

She said she would bring the “plan to you guys later this spring” for Board action.

Ryan White, Chief Technology Officer for Oconee County Schools, reported that the system received three bids for operation of the Wide Area Network that carries the local and Internet traffic for the system.

AT&T was the low bidder, with a cost of $9,453 per month for five years.

Because the Board decided to meet only one time in November, December, and again in January, White recommended approval of, and the Board approved, the contract at the end of the meeting.

Calendar, School Safety

Justin Cofer, Chief Human Resources Officer, said he was presenting a calendar for academic year 2025-2026 that is “based on what we listen or heard from our advisory groups and the insight that we received from them.”

“The consensus was to continue with our model of ensuring that we start on the first Wednesday in August, have 90 instructional days in each semester, and conclude the school year with students before Memorial Day.”

The calendar for school year 2025-2026 starts classes on Aug. 6 and ends them on May 22.

“Is there any feedback on a week-long fall break?” Board Member Michael Ransom asked Cofer.

“Yes sir, there was,” Cofer responded, “but ultimately the Advisory panel felt like sticking with what we've always done is probably the best interest.”

Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff said that a request for proposals “for additional access controls for our school system throughout” will go out “probably the next week or so.”

Oconee County Schools has been awarded a $250,000 Safer Georgia Schools Grant from the Georgia Department of Education. Some of that money will be shared with private schools in the county.

Suzanne Korngold, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, announced that school choice applications for parents who want to send their child to a school other than the one to which the child is assigned will open November 17. The deadline for application is January 19.

Last year Oconee County Schools granted all of the school choice requests.

Construction Update

Fred Ricketson, Director of Facilities, told the Board in his construction update that work on the Instructional Support Center on North Main Street in Watkinsville is progressing well.

Instructional Support Center 11/6/2023

“The interior walls are being framed now,” he said. “They framed the first floor. They're framing the second floor this week. Finishing the roof structure this week.”

Work on the classroom additions to Malcom Bridge Elementary School also is going well, he said.

“They started pouring sidewalks this week,” he said. “They installed the window last week. The doors are in. The air conditioning units are installed.”

Both projects are to be ready for the next school year.

Ricketson said tennis court lights at the two high schools are “installed and they work...We have some work left.”

With these lights, Ricketson said, “all of our outdoor athletic competition venues have lighting.”


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

Normally, the video is available at 8 a.m. on the day following the meeting, but this video was not available at 2:09 p.m. on Tuesday.

When I wrote Colquitt at that time and asked for access to the video, he wrote back at 2:32 p.m. and said “The link should be working shortly.”

When I checked the web site a little before 3 p.m., the link was working and the video was available.

Superintendent Branch began his report at 19:05 in the video.

Burgess praised Branch for his comments at 24:51 in the video.

Stancil began her comments at 26:18 in the video.

White came to the podium at 31:20 in the video.

Cofer began speaking at 35:35.

LeDuff began speaking at 37:43.

Korngold made her comments at 40:18 in the video.

Ricketson began his report at 45:09.


Michael Prochaska said...

A more detailed story on the students earning a perfect SAT score will appear in a prominent space in next week's paper. It's not uncommon for me to prioritize stories in a given week and save certain stories for a future issue, which was my plan for the two students earning a perfect SAT score. The Oconee Enterprise has had a lot of breaking news lately and dedicated its most recent issue to many stories about Veterans Day. In fact, we ran out of space for one additional profile of a veteran and we are saving that story for next week's issue. In anothter example, we bumped Lee's Bear Creek story in our Nov. 9 issue to make space for our DA srories. As editor of The Enterprise, I am constantly thinking about and planning for future issues, not just the immediate deadline. And stories sometimes end up getting saved for a future week.

Michael Prochaska
Editor, the OE

Michael Prochaska said...

Furthermore, our paid editorial staff (those on payroll who write stories) includes myself, a news reporter, a sports editor and a sports intern. That means half of those people have a job that is dedicated to writing about the athletic achievements of students.
The two other reporters have many beats, such as government reporting, crime, human interest, breaking news and non-sports school-related stories. We have always written extensively about positive things happening in both the public and private schools and at one time published the school system's magazine. Oconee County Schools chose to end that partnership.

Michael Prochaska
Editor, the OE

Michael Prochaska said...

I think it's fair to say that the newspaper has and will continue to balance government reporting, which includes holding the school system and school board accountable, with positive stories about its students and employees. To say otherwise is a misrepresentation of what we do.

Michael Prochaska

Ian Taylor said...

Perhaps the board should allow the students to prepare the annual report? They seem to have a better grasp of basic arithmetic than the communications department.

Burgess' claim that (presumably) this blog and the Oconee Enterprise publish largely negative stories is nonsensical. The Oconee Enterprise regularly publishes positive stories about the students and teachers of the OCS system, and let's not forget they are the ones that are important. To the extent that any "negative" stories are published about the school system, they are typically about the board or administration, and are completely justified. Mr. Burgess needs to understand that a story questioning a decision, outlining a discrepancy or a difference of opinion is not negative, it is purely good governance. Something that is lacking at the Board of Education.

As far as this blog is concerned, I think Lee takes extraordinary effort to double check facts before publishing them. And if you believe the story is too "negative" you can always watch the video that he almost invariably links to and come to your own conclusion.

Mr. Burgess needs to understand that it is not the job of the Enterprise (or Lee), to just publish puff pieces created by an overpaid communications department, just as the board should not just rubber stamp decisions made by the school administration.

I think Mr. Burgess is starting to believe his own press. Perhaps instead of complaining about the local press, Mr. Burgess and the board could take some of that reporting to heart and ask some tough questions of OCS Staff. You know, govern.

Oconee County is privileged to have a local newspaper like the Enterprise, and someone of Lee's caliper reporting on local government issues. We are all better off for it.

Keep up the good work, Lee and Michael!

Ian Taylor