Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Oconee School Board Denies Co-Publisher Of The Oconee Enterprise Opportunity To Respond To Criticism From Board Member

***Cites Board Policy On Residency***

Amanda Prochaska, co-publisher of The Oconee Enterprise, went to the Oconee County Board of Education meeting on Monday evening planning to respond to the criticism of the paper made by Board Member Tim Burgess at the November Board meeting.

Prochaska intended to point out, contrary to what Burgess had said, that the paper publishes a large number of positive stories about Oconee County Schools.

The Board wouldn’t let Prochaska speak, however, citing a Board policy that prohibits speakers who live outside the county from addressing the Board during its Public Communication section of its meetings.

Prochaska listed her Clarke County residential address, not her Oconee County business address, when she signed up to speak at the meeting.

The Board didn’t escape Prochaska’s comments, however, as Ian Taylor, who lives in Oconee County and planned to speak on another topic, stepped forward and read Prochaska’s prepared comments.

Prochaska had ended her comments saying that she checked the paper’s data base and learned that not all of the Board members were subscribers to the Enterprise. She offered each a free subscription “so that you can read directly from the source each week.”

Oconee County Attorney Pam Hendrix followed Taylor to the podium, telling the Board that she thinks the amount of money it is holding in reserve is “excessive” and that the vendor reports each month contain unspecified expenditures that she feels should be explained.

Taylor and Hendrix spoke near the end of an hour-long Board meeting that also included a long list of staff reports. The Board will not meet again until January.

Prochaska’s Reply

Taylor said as he came to the microphone on Monday that he had intended to ask the Board to release sooner the agendas for its meeting, but he called that a “mundane issue” and said he was concerned that Prochaska “has not been allowed to speak to publicly respond to criticism of the Board towards their business.”

Taylor Before Board 12/4/2023
Ryan Hammock, Branch, Argo, Burgess (L-R)

At the Nov. 6 Board meeting, Burgess had criticized “our local newspaper” and “bloggers” for focusing on “negative things” rather than student accomplishments.

“I am here tonight to directly refute that claim,” Prochaska had written. “In 139 years, The Oconee Enterprise has continuously supported students, teachers, and staff of schools within Oconee County.”

Prochaska wrote that the paper so far this year has published 219 articles and an additional 126 photos of Oconee County School teachers, students, and events.

“This does not include the press releases featured almost weekly in our news roundup section,” she wrote. “It also does not include the articles written by students we call Young Scholars, nor does it include stories about clubs or groups with loose affiliation to the schools.”

“All that is to say, we pride ourselves on our coverage of Oconee County Schools, and we are not alone,” she said. “You will find stories from The Oconee Enterprise cut out and stuck on refrigerators around the county.”

“We place a high value on our responsibility to the taxpayers of Oconee County to provide well rounded coverage of all of Oconee County Schools activities and meetings, a service I believe we excel in,” Prochaska wrote and Taylor read.

“To say that we do not recognize the incredible work, effort, and preparation by our students, teachers, and staff is just not true,” Taylor said to the Board, reading Prochaska’s written comments.

Hendrix’ Comments

Hendrix has been a frequent speaker at Board of Education meetings, and at the meeting on Nov. 6 she had told the Board she was concerned about the level of per pupil spending by Oconee County Schools.

“Tonight I just thought I would use my three minutes to remind the Board, first of all, that in July you were holding 43.1 million of taxpayer dollars in your account, in August you were holding 38.5 million, in September you were holding 36.5 million, and in October you were holding 32.6 million.”

“I just want to remind the Board that it's my understanding that it's--based on our budget--that you really ought to be holding only possibly 10 to 15 million,” she said, “So these figures are excessive.”

Hendrix was referring to the amounts in the General Fund Operating Account, based on reports given to the Board each month.

“I have really been trying to take a deep dive into the finances of our school system,” Hendrix said, “and one thing that I just wanted to point out that's very odd to me, on every vendor report, at the very end, at every one, it has this 99999 one time vender charge.”

“This one’s $5,099.20,” she said, holding up what she said was the July report, though it is the June vendor report that lists that figure.

“You know, they vary, they totally vary in amounts,” she said. “I’m very curious about this. I was wondering if it’s later corrected, and if so, shouldn’t there be a corrected vendor report submitted?”

“It’s always the last thing,” she said. “This one’s $2,428.28.” That figure was from the July report.

Hendrix also said she thinks Oconee County Schools is relying too heavily on technology in its spending.

Prochaska And Board Policy

After Taylor told me on Monday that he postponed making the comments he intended to give and read instead the statement of Prochaska, I asked both Steven Colquitt, Director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, and Prochaska, for details of what had happened.

Hendrix Before Board 12/4/2023
Hammock, Branch, Argo, Michael Ransom (L-R)

Colquitt responded by referring me to the Board Policy Manual.

Prochaska said in an email message that she arrived at 5:30 p.m. Monday to sign up to speak, that she signed in with her home address, and that she listed The Oconee Enterprise as the topic she wished to address.

Prochaska said an OCS staff member told her she was ineligible to speak because Board policy only allows people who live in Oconee County to address the Board during the Public Communication section of the meeting, the only opportunity for citizens to speak to the Board.

At the start of the Public Communication section of the Monday meeting, Colquitt read a statement he makes at each meeting with Public Communication on the agenda.

“The Board allows three minutes for those who sign up at the meeting,” he said. “You must be a current resident of Oconee County to address the Board. Please state your name, address, and topic.”

“The Board requests that you refrain from making any disparaging remarks about school system personnel,” he read.

“Generally, there will be no response to comments or questions posed by citizens at the meeting,’ he continued. “All comments and questions will be received and taken under advisement by the Board.”

“However any member of the Board shall be free to respond and make public comments if he or she elects to do so,” Colquitt concluded.

No one from the Board responded publicly to either Taylor or Hendrix after each had spoken.

Business Report

The Public Communication opportunity is near the end of the meeting, and earlier in Monday’s meeting Dan Smith, Interim Chief Financial Officer, gave the usual seven financial reports to the Board.

The November Cash Balance Report showed the General Fund balance of $39.5 million, up from the $32.6 in the October report.

Smith reported that Education Local Option Sales Tax revenue in October was up 10.8 percent over that same month a year ago, after just less than a 5.0 percent increase a month earlier.

That September collection was the only one in the lasts 14 months under 10 percent in growth over a year earlier, and Smith told the Board “our rolling average is almost 16 percent (15.7), so our ELOST collections are coming in very healthy.”

Smith’s reports to the Board were his last as Chief Financial Officer.

Earlier in the meeting, Branch had introduced new Chief Financial Officer LaWanda Hankins, who comes to Oconee County Schools from the Gwinnett County School System.

Other Board Reports

Susan Stancil, Chief Academics Officer for Oconee County Schools, told the Board that the next step in the Strategic Planning process will be a January meeting of what she called the “Action Team.”

Front View Of Instructional Support Center
From Operations Report 12/4/2023

“We will work with district leaders, principals, and teachers to develop measurable goals, initiatives, and action steps under each of the goal areas,” she said.

Ryan White, Chief Technology Officer, said he will ask the Board in January to approve spending $1.4 million for Chromebook computers and $78,400 for desktop computers, using Education Local Option Sales Tax revenues.

Fred Ricketson, Director of Facilities, in his Operations Report, updated the Board on construction of the new Instructional Support Center on North Main Street in Watkinsville.

“They're really moving forward,” he said of work on the Instructional Support Center, “making a lot of progress inside of the building as well as outside of the building.”

Ricketson then turned to the classroom addition at Malcom Bridge Elementary School and said “I'm happy to report that heat is on in the building, the ceiling tiles have been installed. It's been painted, and they're installing flooring this week.”

“So things are going really, really well at Malcom Bridge Elementary,” he said.

Both of those projects are to be completed for the beginning of the school year next summer.

Ricketson also said that work on the lighting at the tennis courts at both high schools is now complete “with the exception of a few punch items.”

Rocky Branch Elementary Plans, Furniture Purchase

Ricketson said “we are finalizing the documents” for renovation and modifications at the Rocky Branch Elementary School and “we're going to be advertising for proposals to start on Dec. 14, expecting a proposals to come in the end of January.”

Ricketson told the Board “for the Instructional Support Center, it's time to go ahead and order the furniture so it'll be ready when it's time to move into the building.”

It's the superintendent's recommendation, Ricketson said, for the Board to approve spending $727,870 with Ernie Morris Enterprises of Cumming and $105,325 with Georgia Correctional Industries, based in Decatur, for the furniture.

The Board approved those purchases at the end of the meeting, with the funding to come from Education Local Option Sales Tax revenues.


During the usual Recognitions section of Monday’s meetings, the Board honored Katie Chrisohon, Paraprofessional at Dove Creek Elementary School, as the December Pursuit of Excellence Award Winner/Paraprofessionals.

Hammock, Amy Parrish, Branch, Argo, Burgess
Ransom (L-R) With Argo's Recognition
(Photo Courtesy Of Steven Colquitt)

The Board also recognized student athletes in Boys and Girls Cross Country and Volleyball and the student members of the Strategic Planning Team.

Colquitt, who emcees the recognitions, said as the recognized students left the front of the room, “It's my pleasure tonight to recognize the Board of Education on its designation again as an exemplary Board by the Georgia School Boards Association.”

“The Board has earned this recognition each year since 2015,” he said.

“In addition, it is with great pride we recognize Miss Kim Argo, the chair of the Board of Education, for her 15 years of service to the district and the community,” Colquitt continued.

“Miss Argo, congratulations. Board members, thank you for all your efforts,” Colquitt said.

Superintendent Jason Branch also recognized the Board and Argo in his report to the Board, which followed the Recognitions section of the meeting.


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

Branch began his report at 21:32 in the video.

Smith made his Business Services Report at 35:24 in the video.

Ricketson began his operations report at 44:41 in the video.

Colquitt gave his introduction to the Public Communication part of the meeting at 53:18 in the video.

Taylor began his comments to the Board at 54:03 in the video.

Hendrix began speaking at 57:20 in the video.

The camera used for the Oconee County Schools video intentionally does not show the speakers.

Taylor placed my camera and tripod at the rear of the room, where visitors are seated, and the still images used above of Taylor and Hendrix speaking are from that camera.

1 comment:

Bill Mayberry said...

The BOE meetings are tightly choreographed with a lot of time spent
on fluff: awards, announcements, presentations, PowerPoints.
Budgets whiz by in type too small to see and no discussion but "Approved."
Buried in OCGA Title 48 is the phrase "excess funds shall be ...
returned to the people." Sadly, no mechanism or time frame is mandated.
So these excess millions are assigned to comnmittees formed to spend it.
How about cutting property taxes by, oh, say 2%?
Bill Mayberry