Sunday, January 14, 2024

Oconee County School Board Increases Salaries For Bus Drivers To Address Problems Of Recruitment And Retention

***Board Told Current Salaries Not Competitive***

The Oconee County Board of Education on Monday agreed to spend approximately $350,000 for the remainder of the school year to increase the pay schedule for bus drivers in an effort to recruit and retain needed drivers.

The Board took this action after hearing a report from Chief Human Resources Officer Justin Cofer, who told the Board that despite a string of initiatives, the vacancy rate for bus drivers increased from 22 percent in May of last year to 31 percent as of January of 2024.

Cofer also told the Board that Oconee County, prior to the Board action, ranked seventh out of 12 area school systems in starting pay for bus drivers, and 12th in ending pay.

Based on the posted salary schedule on the system web site, the new schedule represents a 14.3 percent increase for entry level salaries and a 48.1 percent increase for drivers with 21 or more years of service.

In other action at the Monday meeting, the Board agreed to spend $1.4 million for 3,526 Chromebook computers and $78,400 for 98 desktop computers, with the money coming from the Education Local Option Sales Tax and General Fund.

The Board also voted to contribute $170,000 to the $900,000 received from the state as part of the retention supplement program of Gov. Brian Kemp so all eligible employees can receive the supplement.

The Board also approved a bid of $120,274 for additional security cameras at all schools and a bid of $53,468 for additional access controls at various facilities. Both are to be paid for using a Safer Georgia Schools Grant.

Oconee County Schools Superintendent Jason Branch announced that the annual board retreat will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Jan. 16 in the Dogwood Room at the Georgia Club in Barrow County and stated that the meeting is open to the public.

Bus Drivers Needed

Chief Human Resources Officer Cofer told the Board that “one of the primary functions of the Human Resources Division is the recruitment and retention of both certified and classified staff.”

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“While we are certainly concerned with all staff and job families, we must pay particular attention to the jobs that are the hardest to fill,” he continued, “and as you can see by the vacancy rates before you, our bus drivers consistently represent this category.”

Cofer said in the last two years Oconee County Schools had “implemented a series of initiatives to recruit for all of our job families,” and he listed six that had been “targeted toward our transportation shortage.”

Certified staff as well as classified staff were given the opportunity to become bus drivers, tuition was dropped for children of drivers, a contribution was made to a retirement savings account, driver training was paid, and recruitment events were held.

“While these initiatives have aided in recruiting new drivers,” Cofer said, “they have not been able to create enough interest to meet our needs.”

Vacancy rates have increased from 12 percent in May of 2021 to 31 percent at present, Cofer reported. The system had 58 bus drivers on Friday, according to Steven Colquitt, Director of Communications for Oconee County Schools.

“In analyzing our growing vacancy rate,” Cofer said, “we decided to look at a comparison of the bus driver pay scales for other districts in our RESA.”

The Northeast Georgia Regional Education Service Agency (RESA), based in Winterville, serves 13 school districts in 10 counties in Northeast Georgia.

Survey Findings

Cofer told the Board he was able to obtain data for 12 school systems, and Oconee County Schools ranks seven out of the 12 districts in terms of starting pay.

Cofer did not present the existing salary schedule, but the entry level salary for Oconee County Schools, based on the posted pay schedule on the system web site, was $18 per hour. That translates into $16,200 for 180 days at five hours per day. (The chart on the web site shows $16,197.)

Cofer said Oconee County Schools ranked 12 out of the 12 systems in terms of ending pay.

The pay for a driver with 21 years of experience or more on the web site was $21.14 per hour, which translates into $19,026. (The posted rate for that computation is $19,029.)

With the changes approved by the Board on Monday, the entry level pay increases, retroactive to Jan. 1, to $20.57, which translates to $18,513 (as was listed on slide shown to the Board on Monday).

And the change will result in an hourly rate of $31.32 for drivers with 21 or more years of experience, or $28,188, as is was listed on the slide Cofer presented.

Consequence Of Change

According to Cofer, the changes “will place Oconee in the top three for starting pay, first in the RESA in ending pay, and provide a raise each and every year that a driver works for the District, outpacing the scales of other districts in our RESA.”

Board Member Tim Burgess asked Cofer for the cost of the change in the schedule, and he said “for the remainder of this school year, anticipated cost is roughly $350,000.” He did not project beyond that point.

Cofer did not present to the Board any of the salary data from the districts he used for comparison.

When I asked Director o Communications Colquitt on Jan. 9 and again on Jan. 10 “Is it possible to get the comparisons with other districts” that Cofer used, Colquitt responded: “No sir, but I'm sure you can find the information on each system's site.” (I filed an open records request on Jan. 10 for the data Cofer used, but I have not yet received them.)

Terry Radford, representing the bus drivers of Oconee County Schools, spoke at the Board of Education meeting on March 13 of last year, complaining about bus driver salaries.

“We're the number one county in the state as far as the schools go,” Radford said, repeating a statement Superintendent Branch makes often and made in his report to the Board at its work session a week earlier.

But in terms of pay for bus drivers and transportation staff, Radford said, “I think everybody that touches Oconee pays more.” The reference was to counties that surround Oconee.

Teaching And Learning Report

Cofer was preceded in his presentation by reports by other staff members.

Susan Stancil, Chief Academic Officer, told the Board that she wanted to provide an “update on our College and Career Ready Performance Index or CCRPI scores,” and she referred to scores on two of the components of those scores.

“Content Mastery shows how high we are achieving, while Readiness focuses on foundational skills such as literacy and attendance,” she said.

“You can see that Oconee County is ranked number one for Elementary and Content Mastery and number two for Elementary for Readiness,” Stancil said.

“Our Middle Schools are ranked number one for Content Mastery and number six for Readiness. Our high schools are ranked number one for Content Mastery and number three for Readiness,” she continued.

The CCRPI contains five components, and the Oconee County Elementary and Middle school clusters ranked 90th in the state in terms of the Closing Gaps component, and the Middle school cluster ranked 46th in the state on the Progress component.

On the Graduation Rate component, Oconee County’s two high schools ranked 10th in the state, down from eighth in the state in 2022.

Stancil did not mention these other three components, and no member of the Board asked about them.

Immigrant Grant, Strategic Planning

Stancil also told the Board that Oconee County Schools had received a federal Title III Immigrant Subgrant. She did not specify the amount.

Instructional Support Center 
Operations Report 1/8/2024

To be eligible for this federal funding, she said, a school district must have at least 50 immigrant students and the current year's immigrant student count must be at least a 10 percent increase over the prior two-year average count of immigrant students, she said.

To qualify as an immigrant, a student must be between the ages of three and 21, be born outside of the U.S. or Puerto Rico, and have spent less than three full academic years in U.S. schools, she said.

“Based on our two-year average,” she said, our percentage of immigrant students has increased by approximately 30 percent, so we are receiving this grant this year.”

Stancil also said “we are moving right along” with the Strategic Planning Process. “Just as an update, in January we will have our Strategic Action Team, meeting which is actually happening tomorrow, with our district leaders and teachers to start developing our goals initiatives and action steps.”

Business Services

LaWanda Hankins, Chief Financial Officer, presented the Board with the usual seven financial reports.

Hankins reported that November collections from the Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) were up 5.1 percent over November of last year, the second month in the last year when collections were up less than 10 percent over a year earlier.

Collections over the last 14 months are averaging 14.7 percent higher than the same month a year earlier, Hankins reported.

The General Fund Cash Balance increased to $71.4 million in December, up from $39.5 million in November, as property tax revenue flowed into the account, according to Hankins’ report.

“Ad valorem taxes, specifically, we’re 95 percent collected,” Hankins said. “That’s really, really good.”

The Budget Report Hankins presented to the Board lists $47.0 million in projected ad valorem taxes, with $44.7 million received.

ELOST And Supplement

Unspent funds in the Education the ELOST V budget stand at $8.3 million, with spending incomplete on modifications to three system schools and for buses, according to one of the reports presented by Hankins.

Collections for ELOST V ended a year ago, and $10.8 million has been collected for ELOST VI.

That account is showing $5.4 million in unspent funds, but spending continues on Dove Creek Middle School, the Malcom Bridge Middle School classroom additions, the New Instructional Support Center, and technology systemwide.

Hankins told the Board that the “District received guidance over the break regarding the retention supplement awarded by Governor Kemp.”

“Just over $900,000 was received from the state, and the district will need to contribute an additional $170,000 to ensure all eligible staff members receive the supplement,” she said.

In response to a question from Board Member Burgess, Hankins said the supplement recipients “includes people who are benefit eligible.”

Security Upgrades

“Board members, you'll recall Oconee County Schools was awarded the Safer Georgia Schools Grant earlier this school year,” Dallas LeDuff, Associate Superintendent of Oconee County Schools, said as he began his report on Monday.

“That was a competitive grant,” LeDuff said, “to be spent specifically on enhancing school safety.” The funding comes through the Georgia Department of Education from the Federal Government.

According to the Georgia Department of Education records, Oconee County School was one of 74 recipients of grants totaling $14.0 million in Round 1 of competition. Oconee County School received $250,000, according to an Aug. 9, 2023, announcement.

LeDuff reported that Oconee County Schools had decided to use the funds for additional security cameras and additional access controls at school facilities.

LeDuff reported that Oconee County Schools received 13 bids for the cameras, and that Superintendent Branch recommended that the Board award $120,274 to Transcend for the cameras.

LeDuff said “between 40 and 50 cameras” will be added.

Oconee County Schools received four bids for Access Control. Branch recommended that low bidder Atlanta Access Controls Inc. receive the award of $53,468.

Construction Update

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

“We’re making really good progress there,” he said.

Of the classroom addition at Malcom Bridge Elementary School, he said, “They are putting the finishing touches on it now.”

Proposals for the modifications and renovations at Rocky Branch Elementary School are expected on Jan. 25, Ricketson said, and he plans to present the results of the bids to the Board at it meeting in February.

Ricketson said Oconee County Schools will issue a Request for Proposals shortly to replace generators throughout the district.

Communications Report

Communications Director Colquitt told the Board that he wanted to “start the Communications Report this evening with a social media update.”

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Colquitt said that in the month of December, Oconee County Schools had 24 social media posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

“We were really pleased with the numbers that we got back,” Colquitt said. “Basically, on Facebook, we would have 3,500 impressions on our post on average, Instagram right at 2,000, and Twitter right at 550.”

“The Oconee County School's newsletter, which goes out just one time during the month, also reached another 7,700 people,” he said.

The newsletter goes out to more people than 7,700, Colquitt said, but “that's how many actually opened it.”

“So basically, on average, when we sent something out this month, it reached right at 14,000 people,” Colquitt added.

“Now, I understand there's some overlap in that of course, but even with that factored in,” he continued, “we know that our messages are getting out and reaching the people that need to hear all the good news that's going on inside of our schools.”

Odds And Ends

Suzanne Korngold, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, told the Board that School Choice, which gives parents the ability to determine which school their children attend regardless of district assignment, began on Nov. 17 and will continue Jan. 19.

This year, Oconee County School was able to grant all requests since all of its schools are operating under capacity.

The Board voted to retain Hall, Booth, Smith, PC, and Pereira, Kirby, Kinsinger and Nguyen as legal counsel representatives for 2024, to name Board Member Amy Parrish again as Vice Chair, and to retain Burgess as Legislative Liaison.

The Board approved spending $1.4 million for Chromebooks with Virtucom and $78,400 with Bytespeed for desktops, in each case using previously approved purchase agreements.

No citizens signed up to speak during the Public Comment section of the meeting.

In executive session, the Board approved the separation of Jennifer Adams, effective May 31 of this year. Adams currently is Director of Elementary Education.

Board Retreat

Branch announced the annual Board Retreat on Jan. 16 during his Superintendent’s Report to the Board.

The meeting will be in the Dogwood Room at the in the Clubhouse of the Georgia Club, a gated community in Barrow County with access from Barber Creek Road.

A gatehouse is a short way into the property.

According to the Georgia Club web site, the Dogwood Room has a capacity of 12 to 16 people, depending on how it is configured.


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

Branch began his superintendent’s report at 19:29 in the video.

Stancil made her report at 24:02.

The technology report begins at 27:01.

The Business Services report is at 28:19.

Cofer began his report at 31:27.

The Associate Superintendent’s Report is at 34:06

The Student Services report begins at 38:17

The Operations Report is at 41:49 in the video.

Colquitt made his Communications Report at 45:08.

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