Monday, March 11, 2024

Oconee County School Board Seeking Legislation To Change How It Fills Vacancies And How Chair Is Elected

***No Formal Vote Taken***

Oconee County of Board of Education Member Tim Burgess informed the other members of the Board at their meeting on Monday that he is expecting the county’s state legislators to introduce bills shortly to change the ways the Board operates.

The legislation would require vacancies on the Board to be filled by voters under most circumstances rather than by the Board itself and would allow the Board, rather than voters, to select the Board Chair.

Voters will be asked to approve the changes through ballot items on the Nov. 5 ballot this year, Burgess said, and the changes would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025. Voters are now in the process of electing someone to serve as Board Chair.

Burgess said the two changes are ones “that we have researched, and that we have debated, and discussed informally to the point where we approached our local delegation about introducing that.”

The meeting on Monday was the first at which the changes were discussed in public, and the Board took no formal vote once Burgess had finished his presentation.

Post 5 Board Member Michael Ransom, who is one of the two candidates who have qualified to run for Post 1--the Board Chair position--said in a telephone conversation after the meeting that the Board also had discussed increasing the salaries of Board members.

Ransom said the Board decided not to ask for that legislation at this time “because we had the other things that we were more interested in getting passed.”

Amended Agenda

Discussion of the planned legislation did not appear on the agenda released for the Monday evening regular meeting of the Board and was not on the agenda on the table outside the meeting room as it got underway.

Burgess 3/11/2024

After Board Chair Kim Argo gaveled the meeting to order, she asked for approval of the published agenda.

Burgess, who serves as liaison with the legislators representing the county in the General Assembly, asked that the Board amend the agenda to “add an item to discuss proposed legislation.”

The Board approved the modified agenda, and Argo turned to that item late in the meeting, after a long list of recognitions and after receiving reports from staff members.

Argo asked Burgess to address the added agenda item, and Burgess explained what the legislation is designed to do.

Burgess talked for 10 minutes and then responded to questions from each of the Board members.

The whole segment lasted a little more than 17 minutes and ended with Argo thanking Burgess “for all of the work that you put into this” and turning without a vote to citizen communication to the Board.

Two Changes Proposed

The first change, Burgess said, would replace a bill passed in 1964 that allows the Board to fill vacancies itself any time one occurs.

This 1964 bill takes precedence over the state Constitution, which says a vacancy should be filled in the next General Election following the vacancy.

The legislation the Oconee County Board of Education is proposing is designed to replace the 1964 law that currently applies with one that conforms with the Constitution, Burgess said.

The second change outlined by Burgess would allow the Board to select its chair.

At present, Post 1 is designated as the Chair of the Board of Education, and voters select the Post 1 Board Member with that designation.

Kim Argo is the current Board Chair, but she has announced she is stepping down at the end of her current term in December, and Post 5 Board member Ransom last week qualified to run in the Republican Primary on May 21 for Post 1, the Board chair.

Joyce Reifsteck also qualified last week to run for Post 1 Board Chair in the May 21 Republican Primary.

The change that Burgess said will be included in the legislation would conflict with that election.

Burgess’ Report

“As all of you are aware,” Burgess began when Argo turned to him, “for a number of months we’ve had some informal conversations about two or three different types of statutory changes, operational changes that we might want to give more consideration to, that govern the way the Board of Education works in Oconee County.”

“During that time,” he continued, “we’ve done a good bit of research on how those work, how they came to be, and how they operate within the current confines of our Board.”

“A few couple of months ago, we approached the local delegation about their willingness to take two of these changes and put them into a piece of local legislation and introduce them in the General Assembly,” he said.

Burgess told the Board that he had received a draft of the legislation from House District 121 Rep. Marcus Wiedower only on Sunday night and had given it to Superintendent Jason Branch.

Burgess did not make the draft of the legislation public at the meeting itself.

He said he didn’t think the legislation actually had been filed in the General Assembly.

As of Monday evening, the web site for the General Assembly did not list the legislation discussed by Burgess under legislation filed by either Wiedower or House 120 Representative Houston Gaines. Local legislation of this sort begins in the House.

Background Of Report

The discussions among Board members that Burgess referenced have not been in public.

Argo And Burgess 3/11/2024

The only hint that the public had that the Board was considering any local legislation came from a small legal advertisement at the bottom of page B6 of the March 7, 2024, edition of The Oconee Enterprise.

The advertisement said, in its entirety, that “Notice is given that there will be introduced at the 2024 regular session of the General Assembly of Georgia a bill to reconstitute the Board of Education of Oconee County; and for other purposes.”

Wiedower, Gaines, Argo, and Burgess would not provide any indication what the legislation would be when I asked last week. Gaines and Wiedower both represent parts of Oconee County.

The Board met late last year with some members of the local legislative delegation, which also could have included State Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represents all of Oconee County.

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.

Gaines reported that “Over the last two weeks” he had visited “with a number of local groups to preview the upcoming legislative session.”

He next wrote that “We also visited with a number of local governments and school systems--including the Jackson County commissioners, Clarke County and Oconee County school boards, and the City of Auburn council.”

Conversation with Ransom

In a telephone conversation after the meeting, Ransom said “we tossed around the idea (of increasing Board member salaries) a couple of time but we decided ultimately that we’d just keep it where it is.”

“We felt like it was not something we wanted to pursue at this time,” he continued. “Nobody on the Board does it just for that (salary) reason.” Board members are paid only $1,800 per year.

He said the Board was more interested “in the appointment process of filling vacancies,” which the Board wanted to get on the ballot for the election in November.

The Board “also wanted to change the way that we do the chair of the Board after” seeing how Walton County elects its chair, he said.

“That worked very well for them so we started looking into it a little bit,” he said.

“We kind of tossed around the idea of looking at ways to increase the salary not so much that it was something that would be like a job,” he said, “but more that it would be a way not to exclude anybody that was interested in running for the Board.”

Ransom said “maybe in the future” the Board will revisit the salary question.

Justification For Requested Change In Vacancies

Burgess, in his comments to the Board, only discussed the changes in appointment and selection of a chair.

He said that the legislation allowing the Board to fill vacancies was passed in 1964 and “We’ve talked among ourselves about, is that still the best way to fill vacancies, some 30 plus years later,” he said. (It is 60 years since the legislation went into effect.)

“So one of the proposals we’ve made to the local delegation is to change the statute in terms of the way we fill those vacancies to adopt the current state law that governs how Boards of Education are filled around the state,” Burgess said.

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 a prescribed way.

Vacancies that occur more than 90 days from a November even-year election would have to be filled by a special election, except where local legislation existed prior to the passage of the update of the Constitution.

Under the Constitution, the Board could fill the vacancy only for the period leading up to that special election.

Justification For Requested Change In Chair Selection

Burgess said that same 1964 law set up the current five posts on the Board.

“And one of those Posts is the chairman, chairwoman, in this case,” he said, turning to Argo, “and is elected as chair as long as they hold that post and continue to serve in that term.”

Argo 3/11/2024

Burgess said the research that was done showed that 82 percent of the current Boards of Education elect their own chair.

“The second change that we’re talking about making here is to change the current statute so that going forward the Board would elect from among its five members the chair to serve the term as determined by the Board.”

Burgess said the change “would give this Board and future Boards the opportunity to appoint someone from among its membership that has the skills and the background and the perspective to best lead the Board as chair.”

Ransom, were he to be elected Board Chair, would bring four years of experience as a Board member to the Chair Post, but Reifsteck has not served on the Board.

The Democrats have not put up any candidate to run for the Post 1 Chair, so the winner of the Republican Primary between Ransom and Reifsteck will be Board Chair unless the changes Burgess is proposing go into effect on Jan. 1 of 2025, as he said they will.

Argo, in commenting once Burgess had given his overview, said “I feel strongly that the chair should be someone with some experience, that has a relationship with the superintendent...We all know that when you come on the Board, there’s a learning curve there.”

“So I do feel strongly that is probably best that it (the chair) comes from within,” she continued.


The video from the Monday meeting is not yet available on the Oconee County Schools web site.

I recorded the discussion about the proposed legislative changes while standing at the rear of the room without the use of a tripod.

As a result, the video below is unstable in places, but the audio with it is quite good.

I will write about the other parts of the meeting when the full video and the accompanying documents are released to the public.


Harold Thompson said...

Burgess said the change “would give this Board and future Boards the opportunity to appoint someone from among its membership that has the skills and the background and the perspective to best lead the Board as chair.”

Ah ..."perspective". In other words, the Board doesn't want the voters/taxpayers to elect someone to the Chair that could butt heads with the superintendent or ensure more transparency or open communication. Got it

Ian Taylor said...

The timing for this legislation is certainly interesting.

Imagine having a chair that understood that the board works for the citizens who fund it, and the school system works for the board. Imagine having a chair that would allow an agenda to be published ahead of meetings. Imagine a chair that did not take direction from the superintendent.

If Burgess’ assertion is correct in that the chair has no special or extra powers, then why bother to change the way it is elected?

More back room deals.

Ian Taylor