Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Record Shows How Oconee School Board Closed Part Of Its Retreat So Board Members And School Staff Could Eat Lunch And Talk In Private

***Remainder Of Meeting Open But Access Difficult***

Oconee County Schools Superintendent Jason Branch emphasized at the Jan. 8 meeting of the Oconee County Board of Education that the Board’s Jan. 16 retreat would be open to the public.

The Board and Branch’s staff took a number of steps before and after that announcement, however, that made it difficult--and in one case impossible–for the public to access that meeting.

The Board did not put the annual retreat date on its official public meeting calendar, and Board Chair Kim Argo did not release the date of the scheduled meeting until Jan. 4, even after having been asked to do so.

And although Oconee County Schools co-owns with the county the centrally located Oconee County Civic Center, the Board held the retreat, as it has in the past, at the Clubhouse of the Georgia Club, a gated community that straddles the Oconee and Barrow County line. The Clubhouse is in Barrow County. (See note below.)

The Board also did not make a video recording of the meeting, as it does when the Board holds its scheduled work sessions and regular meetings in the school system central offices in Watkinsville.

When Oconee Enterprise reporter Caitlin Farmer showed up at the Jan. 16 retreat with a video camera, Oconee County Schools Communications Director Steven Colquitt told her he wanted her to turn off the camera during breaks in the meeting, as The Enterprise reported in its Sept. 18 edition.

Farmer refused that request, but Colquitt, who also handles Open Records Requests for the school system, told Farmer and the only other citizen present at the retreat that they would have to leave the room as the Board took its luncheon break. Colquitt told Farmer to take the camera with her when she left the room.

The Board met for nearly an hour behind closed doors with no record of what it discussed during that time.

Meeting Itself

Board Chair Argo gaveled the Jan. 16 retreat open at 9 a.m., according to the official minutes of the meeting.

Colquitt Approaches Farmer At End Of Morning Session

The meeting took place in the Dogwood Room at the Georgia Club, which can be configured to seat a maximum of 16 people, according to the Club website, and the five Board members and Branch were seated around a large collection of tables taking up much of that space on Jan. 16.

Once the Board approved a bare-bones agenda, Argo turned the meeting over to Superintendent Branch, who ran the meeting from that point onward.

Branch called forward members of his staff for presentations, including Chief Academic Officer Susan Stancil, Communications Director Colquitt, Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff, and Chief Financial Officer LaWanda Hankins.

Board Chair Argo adjourned the meeting at 3:37 p.m., according to the minutes.

Those minutes also state: “The board of education halted the meeting at 11:56 am for a scheduled lunch break, then reconvened the meeting in open session at 12:50 pm.”

The minutes provide no information on what any of the presenters said at the open part of the meeting and do not include the documents they presented.

Enterprise Editor Michael Prochaska wrote a front page story on deadline for the Jan. 18 edition of the paper about the decision of the Board to exclude Farmer and citizen Pam Hendrix from the luncheon part of the meeting.

Farmer is summarizing the discussions in stories in the Jan. 25 edition of the paper.

Request For Meeting Date

The Board adopts a meeting schedule each year, and that schedule appears on the web site of Oconee County Schools.

Although the Board holds its annual retreats in January, the public meeting schedule for this school year does not include the date for the retreat.

I had planned to attend the retreat, and I wrote to Argo via email on Dec. 18 and asked her for the “date of the retreat next month?”

Argo wrote me back the next day, thanking me “for reaching out.”

“If a special board meeting is called,” she continued, "then notice will be posted on the Oconee County Schools website and also provided to the legal organization at least twenty-four hours in advance.”

The reference to "legal organization" appears to be to the Enterprise, which is the designated county legal organ, where official notices are published.

“Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” Argo wrote.

Further Attempt To Learn Date

In an effort to learn the date of the planned retreat, I filed an Open Records Request with Open Records administrator Colquitt on Jan. 2 asking for “any and all correspondence between Dr. Jason Branch and Ms. Kim Argo from Nov. 1, 2023, to this date regarding the 2024 Board Retreat.”

Agenda For 1/16/2024 Retreat

On Jan. 4, I contacted Prochaska and asked him if he knew the date of the retreat.

He told me that Argo told him the retreat was scheduled for Jan. 16.

Since Prochaska said he did not know the starting time of the meeting or the exact location within the Georgia Club for the meeting, I wrote to Argo that day, Jan. 4, asking her for that information.

“I apologize for not forwarding to you my response to Michael’s email this morning,” Argo wrote back that same day, Jan. 4.

“Plans have been finalized and the BOE retreat is scheduled on Tuesday, January 16, at 9:00 am at the Georgia Club,” she wrote. “I don’t have a room number, but it has been in the same place every year.”

The next day, Jan. 5, Colquitt wrote me in response to my Open Records Request of Jan. 2, saying “There are no responsive records to your request,” meaning that he could not find “any written or electronic correspondence” between Branch and Argo about the upcoming retreat.

Camera And Tripod

I had two medical appointments on Jan. 16, one at 8 a.m. in Athens and the other at 10 a.m. in Winterville, so I knew I would not be able to attend and video record the Jan. 16 retreat.

I discussed this with Prochaska and reporter Farmer, and Farmer agreed to use my camera and tripod to record the meeting.

In exchange, we agreed that she would make copies of the video files for use in her reporting.

At 8:07 a.m. on Jan. 16, Farmer texted me and said that Colquitt “requested that I turn the camera off during breaks and completely remove it from the room during lunch.”

Farmer also contacted Prochaska, and Farmer texted me shortly after that initial message that “I told Steven I would keep it recording the entire time and he said OK.”

Luncheon Break

At 11:56, according to the official minutes, Argo ended the morning session and began the luncheon break.

According to the video that Farmer recorded, Branch actually ended the session.

“We’ll do, we’ll go ahead and clear the room for lunch,” he said, “and come back, I think, how do you all feel about a 45 minute lunch break?”

“Sounds good,” Argo said in response.

“So we’ll reconvene at 12:45. Is that appropriate?” Branch asked.

The video did not pick up any response.

Colquitt Approaches Farmer

At that point, Colquitt came to where Farmer and Hendrix were, and he and Hendrix engaged in a conversation that is not audible in the video. Hendrix had her back to the camera.

“I think we’re in Executive Session, y’all,” Colquitt then said, turning to Farmer. “So clear the room. OK?”

“Did he say 45 minutes?” he said to Hendrix. “I’m not sure what the next, I’m not sure,” he continued.

Colquitt then turned to Farmer and said “Just to be safe, take the camera with you. I don’t want it to get knocked over or anything like that.”

“Is this like an official Exec?” Farmer asked.

Colquitt interrupted and responded “Yes.”

“Executive Session?” Farmer continued.

“Yes,” Colquitt said again.

“I didn’t hear it,” Farmer said.

Time Needed To Remove Camera

“It’s going to be a few minutes,” Farmer continued. “I mean, I have to, if you are going to come back at 12:45, I’m going to have to come back here in 20 minutes and set up again. It will take a few minutes to set up again.”

“OK,” Colquitt said.

“It will take minutes,” Farmer said.

“OK. Wait to turn the camera on at that time,” Colquitt said.

“OK, that’s fine,” Farmer said. “If I have to take all of this down. It’s going to take a while.”

“We’ll have to wait until she gavels us back in,” Colquitt said.

“OK,” Farmer said, as she turned off the camera.

After The Meeting: Colquitt

On Wednesday morning, I received a telephone call from Colquitt. I was in my car, and I do not recall the exact words he used. I believe he said he had made a mistake on Tuesday. I know he said he already had “cleaned it up with Caitlin.”

I told Colquitt I was in the car and asked him to send me an email message repeating what he had just said.

I subsequently sent him an email thanking him for the call and saying “I want to be sure I have your explanation exactly as you stated it. Please send it to me via email as well. I was in the car and could not take notes.”

Colquitt has not responded to this request.

After The Meeting: Argo

At 10:34 p.m. on Jan. 16, the date of the retreat, I sent an email to Argo saying , “I just watched parts of the video from today's retreat.”

Clips On Open Meetings Law
Sent To Argo With Email On  1/16/2024

“Before the luncheon break, Steven Colquitt, the Open Records Officer for Oconee County Schools, told Caitlin Farmer that she had to stop recording the meeting, remove her camera, and leave the room. He called it an ‘official’ executive session,” I wrote.

“As you know, and is clear from the paragraphs from the Open Meeting Law below, it was not an ‘official’ executive session,” I continued. “There was no vote to go into executive session and no vote to come out of executive session. And there was no stated reason for the executive session.”

“So I would like to have your explanation of what happened today,” I wrote. “Why did you close a portion of the open meeting? And on what legal basis did you do that?”

Argo’s Response

“My apologies for the confusion,” Argo wrote on the morning of Jan. 17. “The Board of Education took a scheduled lunch break on Tuesday from noon until 12:45 p.m. and did not go into executive session.”

“The lunch break had been announced several times during the morning portion of our retreat,” she said. “Mr. Colquitt misspoke when he told Ms. Farmer the Board was going into executive session, and he later corrected his error with Ms. Farmer.”

“To go into executive session, the Board would need a recommendation, a second, and a vote – none of which took place,” she wrote. “The video that Ms. Farmer provided will confirm that.”

“During the lunch, which was provided for the Board and OCS staff but not the media or citizens, Board members engaged in conversations about their families and recent holiday trips. When the Board reconvened, all parties were in the room,” Argo wrote. (The punctuation is as in the original message except that I broke Argo’s comment into two paragraphs, while she did not.)

“If you have any further questions, please contact Dr. Branch or Mr. Colquitt,” Argo wrote.

I wrote back to Argo and told her that Colquitt had called me.

“Unfortunately, there is no video of the conversation over lunch since Caitlin was instructed by Steven to take it down and leave the room and she complied,” I wrote.

“I still am unclear as to why you felt it necessary to tell Pam and Caitlin they had to leave and on what legal basis you took that action,” I wrote.

Argo has not responded to that message.

Documents From Meeting

At the retreat, Oconee County staff passed out to the Board documents to supplement the presentations.

Materials Being Distributed To Board During Morning Break
Board Member Ryan Hammock In Background

In anticipation of that, I filed an open records request at 9:46 p.m. the night before the retreat so it would be in Colquitt’s email the next day.

I asked “for all documents, including any PowerPoint files, presented to the Board of Education at its retreat on 1/16/2024.”

At 12:01 p.m. on Jan. 19, or three days after the meeting, Colquitt wrote that “The slides you requested from the Board's special session have been packaged and are available for pickup in the Central Office at 34 School Street at your convenience. Please note that the Central Office closes at 4 p.m. today.”

I wrote Colquitt back at 3:25 p.m. and asked him if both the slides and documents that were passed out were included, since I had requested both and his note referred only to the slides.

When I did not get an answer from Colquitt, I wrote him a second time--at 6:13 p.m. on Jan. 19.

“I didn’t get an answer from you,” I said. “You have these documents electronically. Please send them to me electronically.”

Two days earlier, on Jan. 17, I had gone to the Oconee County Schools for documents on salaries of school bus drivers I had asked for via an Open Records Request. Colquitt had said they were in the central office and I should go there to get them.

When I went to the central office that morning (Jan. 17), no documents were available, and Colquitt did not answer his phone when he was contacted by the person at the front desk. When I emailed Colquitt later that day and pointed out that the documents were not available as he promised, he sent them to me electronically without any explanation or apology.

In response to my request of Jan. 19 that he send me the documents from the retreat electronically, Colquitt wrote on Jan. 22, saying “The documents you requested from the Board’s special session are packaged and available for pickup in the Central Office at 34 School Street.”

“Please note that the Central Office closes at 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and at 4 p.m. on Friday.”


The video that Farmer shot is below.

Branch made his comment about clearing the room a 2:48:56 in the video.

Colquitt’s interaction with Farmer follows.

NOTE: Shawn Wheeler, Executive Director of the Civic Center sent me an email at 2:01 p.m. on 1/25/2024 saying: “I just wanted to let you know for clarity’s sake:  The Oconee County Civic Center is not co-owned by the Board of Education.  They gave the County the land it sits on and they pay for part of the utilities and maintenance of the Building.  In exchange: they use the building free of charge per event.” 

I appreciate the correction.


Michael Prochaska said...

Lee, while I understand why you name everyone in your story, I would like to explain why I took a different approach.

The story that appeared in The Oconee Enterprise last week was written by myself, not the reporter in attendance. The reporter was assigned to cover the content of the meeting and she did a really great job of that in three separate stories this week. But I didn't want to make the reporter the focus of the story or distract from the stories that she wrote, so I left out her name.

There is a curiosity among some about different approaches and styles to a story. No two people would write the same story in the exact same way. I don't plan to use this story in The Oconee Enterprise since it's something we have already covered, but if I did, I would have edited it in such a way to name the public officials but not the reporter.

Michael Prochaska said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lee Becker said...

Just a reminder. I will only publish comments with a complete, real name attached.

Lee Becker said...

The comment that I deleted from Michael was a duplicate. I am not sure why it appeared twice. I deleted the second appearance of the identical comment.