Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Legislation Proposed By Oconee County School Board Would Produce Two Changes But Allow Only One Yes Or No Vote On December Ballot

***Would Overturn Election Of Board Chair***

The Oconee County Board of Education on Monday night released on its web site and via social media the full text of the law it wants passed to change how the chair of the Board of Education is selected.

If the bill passes and becomes law, the ballot item for the November election would ask voters if they want the Board to appoint its own chair, rather than have voters do that, as is the case at present.

The second part of the proposed ballot item asks voters if they want to change the way the Board fills vacancies.

Voters will be asked to approve both of these as a package

At present, the Board fills vacancies, including of the chair, that occur at any point in the four-year term of a Board member.

At the meeting on Monday night, Chair Kim Argo, who was appointed and not elected chair, said that no one without experience on the Board should serve as chair.

Argo’s term is up in December, and she is not seeking reelection, and two candidates have qualified to run for that position, one currently on the Board and the other not.

If the legislation is passed the way the Board is proposing, the law would go into effect on Jan. 1, basically negating whatever choice citizens make about who is to serve as Board chair in the November election.

Monday’s Meeting

The Board amended its agenda on Monday to discuss changes to the local legislation that governs how it operates.

Member Tim Burgess, who serves as liaison with the county’s legislative delegation, said that he had worked with Rep. Marcus Wiedower on legislation to allow the Board to elect its own chair and to take away the current power of the Board to fill vacancies during a term, regardless of when the vacancy comes about.

Burgess did not discuss details of the ballot item, and neither he nor any of the staff of Oconee County Schools released at that meeting the text of the proposed bill.

The staff put the legislation on social media and on the Oconee County Schools web site about 9 p.m., according to Steven Colquitt, Director of Communications for Oconee County Schools.

The Board wants to change the way vacancies are filled “to enhance transparency and accountability by allowing voters to have a more direct say in who represents them on the Board,” a statement with the announcement of the Board action signed by all five Board members reads.

The second proposed change, according to the statement, would give the Board “the flexibility to appoint a Chair based on their knowledge, experience, and skills to effectively serve the Oconee County School System.”

The statement says these are two separate changes, but it does not say that voters cannot vote on them separately.

Link To Legislation

The statement on the Oconee County Schools web site does have a link to the proposed legislation, which lists the proposed ballot item.

Ballot Language In Proposed Legislation

It includes a single item requiring a vote of Yes or No.

The ballot item ask for approval of reconstitution of the Board of Education of Oconee County to provide “for the board to select a chairperson from among its members” and to “repeal that constitutional amendment relating to the election of the chairman and members of the Board of Education of Oconee County.”

The constitutional amendment is a reference to a 1964 law that preceded a revision to the Georgia Constitution, but the ballot language does not explain that what is being repealed in the law passed by the General Assembly in 1964

That law became an exception to the provision of the Georgia Constitution regarding election of members of Boards of Education.

The Georgia Constitution states “In all instances where local laws applicable to local boards of education do not provide otherwise,” a vacancy occurring for any reason on a local board of education shall be filled in the following way.

Vacancies that occur more than 90 days from a November even-year election have to be filled by a special election.

The proposed legislation states that if more than half of the voters approve of the ballot item, “this Act shall become of full force and effect on January 1, 2025.”

Status Of Legislation

The General Assembly web site does not yet list any legislation relating to the Oconee County Board of Education as having been introduced as of Wednesday evening by Wiedower or Rep. Houston Gaines, who also represents parts of Oconee County.

Last week, current Post 5 Board of Education member Michael Ransom qualified to run for Post 1, which is designated as the Chair of the Board, in the Republican Primary on May 21.

Joyce Reifsteck, who is not on the Board, also qualified to run for the Post 1 Chair position in the Republican Primary.

Qualifying produced two Republicans contesting Post 5, now held by Ransom, and three Republicans seeking the Republican party nomination for Post 4, now held by Burgess. Burgess is stepping down.

In addition, two candidates are running as Democrats, one seeking Post 4 and the other seeking Post 5.

Under the current law, Argo and Burgess could have resigned when they decided not to seek re-election and the Board could have appointed Ransom to the Post 1 Chair position and filled both Post 4 and Post 5 without an election until November.

Argo was appointed chair by the Board after Tom Odom, who had been elected chair, stepped down for health reasons after serving only eight months of his four-year term.

Public Comment At Monday’s Meeting

Pamela Lohr Hendrix and Suzannah Heimel, who have qualified to run in the Board of Commissioners, not Board of Education, races, spoke during the public comment section of the meeting on Monday, after the proposed legislation had been discussed.

Screen Shot Heimel Before Board 3/11/2024

Hendrix said the Board had added two new positions and she wanted to know why that was necessary given that enrollments are not growing.

When she had finished speaking, Ransom told her these were not new positions but simply the hiring of replacements for existing positions.

Heimel, when she came to the podium, said she was interested in the discussion of the legislation.

“Will you make the draft of the bill public?” she asked.

“The fact that it was it was addressed, it was discussed in private, is upsetting to many of us,” she said.

No one responded to Heimel, and no mention was made of when the legislation would be released to the public.

Reports To Board

Prior to the comments by Hendrix and Heimel, Superintendent Jason Branch had asked Justin Cofer, Chief Human Resources Officer, to come to the podium to answer questions from the Board he had been unable to answer at the meeting on March 3.

Cofer said Oconee County Schools has 46 School Food Nutrition workers, with seven vacancies.

The Board voted to increase the pay for these workers at its meeting on March 3 to help eliminate those vacancies.

Later in the meeting, Branch asked Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff to answer questions about the number of generators included in a bid before the Board for action on Monday. Director of Facilities Fred Ricketson had been unable to provide that answer at the May meeting.

LeDuff said nine generators are included in the $1.2 million bid by Qualified Electrical Contractors of Statham.

“Of those nine, seven of them will be powered by natural gas and two of them will be powered by diesel,” he said.

Business Services

LeWanda Hankins, Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, presented eight reports to the Board on Monday.

The reports show that the Cash Balance for the General Fund was at $65.9 million on Feb. 29, down from $68.1 a month earlier.

Ad valorem tax collection is at 96.8 percent, the Budget Report shows.

The Vendor Report lists $1,424 in spending at the Georgia Club. It does not provide details. The Board held it annual retreat at that facility in January.

Hankins reported that Education Local Option Sales Tax revenue dropped below $1 million ($955,222) for the first time in four months and was up just 0.6 percent from a year earlier.

The collection in January had been down 0.8 percent from the January report of 2023.

Meeting In December

In my stories on March 10 and March 11 about the legislation being discussed by the Board, I wrote that “The Board met late last year with some members of the local legislative delegation.”

Screen Shot Announcing Meeting

“The existence of the meeting between the Oconee County Board of Education and the legislators, probably in December, only became known because of an email Gaines sent out to constituents on Dec. 23 of last year,” I wrote.

On the morning of March 12, Board Member Amy Parrish sent me an email saying “Houston wasn’t the only one to announce the meeting.”

She attached a screen shot of a social media post by Oconee County Schools about that meeting, which took place on Dec. 14, 2023.

It shows a picture from that day, over which is text thanking Wiedower, Gaines, and Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represents Oconee County in the state Senate “for the visit today. OCS appreciates their service to our community and support of public education.”

It does not say anything about the meeting.

Because only the two Board members–less than a quorum–attended the meeting with the legislators, it did not fall under the requirements of the State Open Meetings Act.

No public notice of the meeting was given, and no minutes have been published.


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

Reports to the Board begin at 25:02.

Burgess began his discussion of the legislation at 29:02 in the video.

Hendrix came to the podium at 44:24 in the video and was followed by Heimel.

1 comment:

Jay said...

The legislation (HB 1496) was introduced in the House on Thursday, March 14.

Jay Hanley