Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Oconee School Board Hears Financial Reports From Staff Followed By Criticism From Citizens Of Its Management Of School System Finances

***Sales Tax Revenues Decline***

Oconee County Schools took in a little more than $1.2 million in Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) revenue in January, but the amount was nearly a percentage point lower than the system took in from the sales tax in January of 2023.

The decline, which actually was for taxes collected in December of 2023, compared with a 5.1 percent increase in December of 2023 over December of 2022 and was the first decline in ELOST collections going back to April of 2022.

Over the last 14 months, collections have averaged 12.9 percent higher than in that same month a year ago.

The ELOST collections report was one of seven that LaWanda Hankins, Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, gave to the Oconee County Board of Education at its regular meeting on Monday.

She also reported that the General Fund Cash Balance stood at $68.1 million on Jan. 31, down from $71.4 million on Dec. 31 of last year, that $8.3 million is available in the expired ELOST V account, and that $5.8 million is available in the current ELOST VI account. Designated spending continues from both ELOST accounts.

Two citizens spoke during the public comment section of the meeting on Monday, both raising concerns about fiscal management by the Board.

In recent days, the shape of the May 21 primary for three Board Posts has come into clearer focus, as Brock Toole has declared he will run for Post 5 on the Board to replace Michael Ransom, who is running for Post 1, the chair position.

The Oconee Enterprise is reporting in tomorrow’s (Feb. 15) edition that Post 4 Board Member Tim Burgess is joining Board Chair Kim Argo in not seeking re-election.

Citizen Comment

Public Comment is one of the final agenda items at regular meetings of the Board of Education, and speakers must sign up in advance and are limited to three minutes.

Heimel Before Board 2/12/2024

Suzannah Heimel, the first to speak on Monday, noted that the Oconee County Schools General Fund Cash Balance on Dec. 1 of 2023 was $71.4 million.

"Where is this money kept?" she asked. "What kind of account is it kept in? How is it invested? How much is it earning? Those are all relevant questions that I think taxpayers would like to know."

Heimel also questioned the size of the cash balance and asked about debt service on the bonds Oconee County Schools sold to finance its school construction projects.

Heimel noted that the Board has increased taxes the last two years and asked "What happens this year with taxes? Will they increase again? How much is too much?”

“What happened to being a conservative with our money and our tax dollars?” she asked. “What is the duty of Board of Education? Myself and others thought it was to keep a watchful eye in the management of our school system."

Second Speaker

The second speaker, Stephen Aleshire, said that the Board was about to approve spending $2.637 million (he said approximately $2.7 million) on modifications and renovations to Rocky Branch Elementary School, with the total cost of $3.1 million.

Aleshire Before Board 2/12/2024

Aleshire referred to this as an “addition” and said that, given that the Board already had added classrooms at others schools, he questioned why the Board was spending roughly $400,000 above the contract costs.

“The basic question from taxpayers,” Aleshire said, “is why we're spending so much money on engineering costs and related expenditures for school additions that likely represent similar, if not exact plans as previously done?”

“Do the Board members actually review the work in these or in executive sessions?” he asked. “Did the Board members actually review architectural plans as well as the underlying engineering requirements?”

Action Items

Following the public comment, the Board awarded the $2.6 million contract to Amacher Bros. Construction Company of Atlanta for modifications and renovations to Rocky Branch Elementary School.

The Board also voted to spend $732,954 for purchase of five 48-passenger buses and one 72-passenger bus from Thomas Peach State Freightliner, based in Norcross.

And the Board approved spending $84,138 for 111 teacher laptops and $90,879 for a data recovery system. Virtucom and Prosys, both with offices in Atlanta, are the respective designated bid recipients.

No one from the Board responded to either Heimel or Aleshire after they spoke, but after the Board had approved the $2.6 million contract with Amacher, Board Member Tim Burgess asked Superintendent Jason Branch about the project.

“That last project, Jason, this expansion and renovation or modification and renovation at Rocky Branch. This has been on our Capital list for several years now?” Burgess asked.

“Yes sir,” Branch responded. “It's the last project on our five-year-plan that we've been working for several years.”

“So it's been a planned project,” Burgess repeated. “This is the last project in that planned expansion that we've been discussing for several years?”

When Branch affirmed that response, Burgess said “I still vote Yes.”

Financial Reports

Chief Financial Officer Hankins earlier in the meeting went quickly through her seven reports to the Board.

Hankins Before Board 2/12/2024

The report on ELOST V, collection for which is complete, lists spending for renovations and modifications at Oconee County Primary School, Oconee County Elementary School, and Oconee County High School at $3.7 million, with a final estimated cost of $4.6 million.

Oconee County Schools already has spent $0.9 million on buses from this ELOST.

Outstanding projects for ELOST VI are spending for Dove Creek Middle School, classrooms at Malcom Bridge Elementary School, the new Instructional Support Center, and Technology Systemwide.

Burgess Question

When Hankins finished her Year-To-Date Budget Report, which shows $47.0 million in projected revenue from ad valorem (property) taxes, with 95.7 percent collected, Burgess asked her a question.

“Does the revenue estimate this year for our ad valorem taxes reflect the reduction in the fee that the county now charges us as opposed to what they were charging us in previous years?” he asked.

Hankins said she was not sure but she would look into it.

“You’ll check on that and we can talk later, just to make sure that I understand the revenues,” Burgess said.

Last year, both the School Board and the Board of Commissioners approved a new Joint Use Agreement on use of each other’s athletic facilities stipulating that neither Oconee County Schools nor the county will charge the other for use of sports facilities.

The Board of Commissioners agreed as part of the new arrangement to reduce the amount the county charges for collecting the ad valorem taxes for the school system from 2.5 percent to 2.0 percent.

Burgess was asking if the Year-To-Date Budget Report on projected revenue had been adjusted to reflect that change.

Candidate Announcements

Board Chair Kim Argo announced on Feb. 6 that she has decided not to seek re-election, and the following day Post 5 Board Member Michael Ransom, whose term also expires at the end of this year, announced that he will run for Post 1, the Board Chair Post.


On Feb. 8, Toole announced that he planned to qualify to run for Post 5.

Toole said his “previous experience as the Chief Operations Officer with Oconee County Schools positions him as an ideal candidate to serve on the Board of Education.”

Burgess, according to the story in tomorrow’s (Feb. 15) Enterprise, said it time for someone else to serve on the Board.

“I think the Oconee County School System is the primary factor that contributes to the prosperous economy and quality of life that we enjoy in Oconee County,” he is quoted as having said in an email sent to the paper announcing his decision to step down in December.

Argo, Burgess, and Ransom have all run as Republicans. Toole did not say in his announcement which party’s nomination he would seek.

Watkinsville Attorney Pam Hendrix is recruiting candidates to run on what she has called a “slate” in all of Oconee County’s races in the May 21 Republican Party primary.


The video below of the Feb. 12 Board of Education meeting is on the Oconee County Schools YouTube channel.

The still images above from the meeting have been captured from that video.

Hankins began her presentation at 18:05 in that video.

Heimel began her comments at 20:40, and was followed by Aleshire at 22:42.

The Board voted on the action items, including the spending contracts, at 24:54.


Ian Taylor said...

Put aside the fact that neither the financial officer or, evidently, the Superintendent did not know if the revenue numbers were net of collection fees or not, the half percent difference would amount to $235,000 a year - almost the same that the general fund cash balance should be generating each month with current interest rates. It took a citizen to ask the question, because the board seemingly does not find that interesting enough. Credit to Burgess for asking his question, but it was the wrong question to ask.

But more importantly, this just shows in what low esteem the OCS administration holds the board. They know they will never get asked hard questions and all expenditures will get rubber stamped. We need a board that actually governs, and are good stewards of the citizen’s monies. Now we find out that the person seeking the board chair, who couldn’t be bothered to ask any questions, wants to spend $10 million on a pool and teach kids to change tires!

I hope the citizens of this county wake up and realize that a local Board of Education has more direct impact on their lives than politicians under the gold dome or in Washington, and vote in some folks who will insist that the administration justify every dollar they ask for.

Ian Taylor

Lsford said...

I wonder if anyone misses the financial stewardship of Doug Eza and Randy Morrison?
Linda Ford