Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Candidate For Chair Of Oconee County School Board Asks Board To Explain Effort To Take Chair Away From Her If She Is Elected

***Board Gets Review Of FY25 Budget***

Joyce Reifsteck asked the Oconee County Board of Education on Monday night to indicate when and how it made the decision to seek legislation that will strip her of the position of Chair of the Board if she is elected to that position in November.

Reifsteck pointed out that she qualified to run in the Republican Primary for the open Post 1 on the Board of Education–a Post that is labeled as Board Chair–on Friday, March 8.

As the Board began its regular meeting on Monday, March 11, she noted, the Board amended its agenda to include discussion of legislation it wanted to have introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives to unlink the Post 1 position from the position of Board Chair.

In an unusual move, Board Member Michael Ransom, who also had filed--on March 4, the first day of qualifying–to run in the Republican Primary for Post 1 Board Chair, responded to Reifsteck.

The back-and-forth lasted more than three minutes–the time allocated to Reifsteck for her initial comments--and ended when Vice Chair Amy Parrish told Reifsteck her time was up. Reifsteck said she wasn’t satisfied with the answers she received.

No Democrat has qualified to run for Post 1, so either Reifsteck’s or Ransom’s name will be on the ballot in November, along with a referendum that will ask voters if they want to remove the designation of Board Chair from the person they are electing for that position.

At the end of the meeting on Monday, the Board approved Matt Stephens as the next Principal of Oconee County High School and Peter Adams as the new Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools.

The regular Monday meeting followed an hour-long called session, during which the Board received a preview of the Fiscal Year 2025 budget showing what that budget would look like if spending for the current fiscal year were continued largely unchanged.

Public Communication

Reifsteck was the only person who signed up to speak to the Board in the Public Communication section near the very end of the meeting.

Reifsteck And Ransom 1

Her comments followed recognitions and brief reports from Chief Financial Officer LaWanda Hankins and Chief Technology Officer Ryan White.

Reifsteck noted that three days after the Board meeting on March 11, Representatives Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower introduced House Bill 1496, called “An Act to reconstitute the Board of Education of Oconee County.”

That bill passed the House on March 21 and the Senate on March 28.

Gaines’ House District 120 includes Bogart and Marswood Hall precincts in Oconee County, and Wiedower’s 121 House District includes the remaining six precincts in the county.

Reifsteck said Gaines and Wiedower, along with Sen. Bill Cowsert, whose 46th Senate District includes all of Oconee County, had met on Dec. 14, 2023, with School Board Chair Kim Argo, Board Member and Legislative Liaison Tim Burgess, and Superintendent Jason Branch.

Reifsteck said she knew about the meeting because there was an “Instagram Post” of a picture of those six participants in the meeting, “but they did not make the legislation that they were working on available to the public.”

Reifsteck said that the Georgia Open Meetings Act requires that “all meetings shall be open to the public. All votes at any meeting shall be taken in public.”

“I’m here to ask, Reifsteck said, “when did the School Board meet about this? And when did the School Board vote about this?”

Initial Exchange With Ransom

“There is a published report of Mr. Ransom stating in a telephone conversation that the Board also had discussed increasing the salaries of Board members,” Reifsteck said.

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

“So I have to ask: When did this discussion take place?” Reifsteck asked. “How was Mr. Burgess able to express the sentiments of the Board to our legislators, and how do we know what the sentiments of the Board are if there was never any discussion or vote?”

“And why was this never voted on?” she continued.

“I think the actual quote was, it wasn’t a priority to raise School Board salaries,” Ransom said when Reifsteck paused. “And it wasn’t a vote to pass legislation, it was to put it on the ballot for voting purposes in the general election.”

“When was the vote?”Reifsteck asked.

“The vote will come up in the General Election,” Ransom said. “It’s not a.”

“When was the School Board vote, though?” Reifsteck interrupted.

“There was not one,” Ransom said. “It’s put on the ballot as a resolution.”

Ransom And Reifsteck Continue

“It’s my understanding, according to what I just said about the Open Meetings Act, that you all you needed to have discussion and vote on something,” Reifsteck said. “There was a discussion, but there was no vote here,” she added.

Reifsteck And Ransom 2

“There was no action taken by the School Board,” Ransom said. “There was action taken by our state representatives.”

“How did the state representatives know what you guys wanted to do?” Reifsteck asked.

“It was on the last election,” Ransom said. “I believe it was a question on the ballot there. How we should elect or appoint vacancies on the School Board.”

More than 90 percent of those participating in the May 2022 Republican Party Primary responded “Yes” to this question: “Should Oconee Citizens have the opportunity to vote on unexpected vacancies when they occur on the Board of Education.”

The Republican Party put this nonbinding item on the ballot after the School Board a year earlier, using a 1964 law, moved then Post 3 Board Member Argo to replace Tom Odom as chair. Odom stepped down with more than three years remaining on his term.

The ballot item that House District 121 Representative Marcus Wiedower had drafted would replace that 1964 law that allows the Board to fill vacancies by appointment rather than by election, but only if voters also allow the Board to select its own chair.

Ransom And Reifsteck: Impact Of Legislation

When Ransom told Reifsteck about the origins of the ballot initiative, she said “OK. That’s not the point I’m talking about. I’m talking about the thing where we’ve got on the ballot in May.”

“This is you and me,” she said. “We’re both running for Post 1 Chair. Somebody is going to win that day.”

“If you go in to vote on May 21st, if you vote for one of us,” she said. “Whoever is voting is voting for Post 1 Chair.”

“That’s right,” Ransom said. “Post 1 becomes just Post 1, assuming that the legislation passes,” he said.

“So its not going to say Post 1 Chair,” Reifsteck asked?

“At the general election it will,” Ransom said. “But if that legislation passes by vote of the county, it will take effect at the end of the year or the beginning of next year. The Post 1 will be just a general post.”

“So the citizens are going to have the choice to vote in November at the General Election if they want to keep things like they are, or if they want to allow the Board to internally pick the chair and to appoint a replacement or interim Board members,” Ransom said.

“So you’re answering my questions,” Reifsteck said. “But what you’re saying doesn’t answer the actual question that you are disenfranchising every voter who votes on May 21st because on May 21st we’re voting for Post 1 Chair.”

“That’s right,” Ransom said.

Shortly after this response, Board Vice Chair Amy Parrish said “I don’t think now is the time to have a debate about this.”

“Correct,” Board Chair Argo said. “Thank you.”

March 11 Meeting

At the meeting on March 11 that Reifsteck referenced, Burgess told the Board that he had received a draft of the legislation from Wiedower only on Sunday night before the Monday meeting and had given it to Superintendent Jason Branch.

Reifsteck And Ransom 3

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.”

Argo added “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.

This was after qualifying was finished and it was known that only Reifsteck and Ransom had qualified. Reifsteck has never served on the Board or worked with Superintendent Branch.


Prior to the Public Communication period of the Monday meeting, Chief Financial Office LaWanda Hankins presented the standard seven financial reports to the Board.

Educational Local Option Sales Tax receipts increased by 5.4 percent in March (for February collections) over that same month a year ago, one of the reports shows. The receipts in February and January over those months a year earlier had been essentially flat.

The General Fund balance on March 31 was 63.4 million, down from $65.9 million on Feb. 29, according to another of those reports.

Ryan White, Chief Technology Officer, told the Board that the replacement Chromebooks that it had agreed to purchase “were configured, tested” during spring break and that distribution to all of the schools will be completed “in time to ensure the eligible devices are swapped before Milestone testing.”

In its executive session, the Board adopted the personnel recommendations of Superintendent Branch to appoint Stephens as the next Principal of Oconee County High School effective June 1 and Adams as the new Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools effective May 16.

Stephens currently is Principal for Oconee County Middle School, and he replaces Kevin Yancey, who will become Director of Student Services.

Adams is an administrator for the Georgia Department of Corrections, according to an announcement from Oconee County Schools.

The Board approved the recommendation of Superintendent Branch at the Feb. 5 meeting to accept the separation of Hankins effective May 1.

Hankins had been hired as Chief Financial Officer by the Board at its Nov. 6, 2023, meeting, with the effective date of Dec. 4.

At the Monday meeting, the Board also approved a Strategy Map for the Strategic Plan being developed by Oconee County Schools.

Budget Session

Superintendent Branch announced in his report to the Board at its work session on April 8 that, at the Board’s request, staff was preparing for a “budget workshop that will be focused on expenditures” for 4 p.m. on April 15.

Argo, Burgess, Ransom (L-R

The official announcement of the called meeting went out at 4 p.m. on Friday, but it made no mention of the purpose of the meeting.

Despite that, almost all of the available seats at the rear of the room were filled when the meeting got underway. In total, 12 citizens attended, included several who are running for one of the seats on the School Board in the upcoming elections.

In response to a question from Board Member Tim Burgess, Branch said at the beginning of the meeting that the focus would be on what he called a “Continuation Budget.” He said it was tentative.

Expenditures from the current Fiscal year 2024 budget were projected as indicators for what might be included in the Fiscal Year 2025 budget when it is prepared.

“Nobody should take any perspective that this is it, and any change to this is change in a final budget,” Burgess said. “This is a tentative budget, yet to be modified, yet to be presented, at a later date in a month or two.”

Budget Schedule

Katie Childers, Director of Finance, led the Board through a slide show of that budget.

The total projected budget for Fiscal Year 2025 was $105,238,598, down from $105,970,180 this year, but Branch and Childers emphasized that the estimate was rough, and expenditures are likely to be higher when the final budget is complete.

According to Childers, budget requests were due at the Business Services Office in February, and a tentative budget is scheduled to be presented to the Board for adoption on May 13.

Public hearings on that budget are scheduled for May 22 and June 3, with final adoption of the budget scheduled for June 10.

Final adoption of a millage rate is scheduled for Aug. 5.

If that millage rate represents a tax increase, hearings will be have to be scheduled before that August date.

Features Of Budget

Salaries and benefits make up 89.3 percent of the budget, with the remaining 10.7 percent for operations, Childers said.

Childers said $75.3 million of the $105.2 million budget is for instruction, with $63.8 million of that for teachers.

Pupil services make up $3.9 million, with the largest expenditure in this category for nurses, at $0.8 million.

Central Administration is budgeted at $0.9 million, with $564,189 of that for the executive staff, which includes the superintendent, the central office administrative clerk, and an executive administrative assistant, Childers said.

School administration is budgeted at $6.9 million, which includes 12 school principals at $2.0 million, 19 assistant principals at $2.5 million, and front office staff at $2.2 million.

Business Services is budgeted at $0.8 million, Maintenance and Operations at $8.3 million, and Support Services at $0.9 million.

Included in Support Services is Human Resources Staff at $516,482 and Communications Staff at $143,231.

Bus Drivers

Childers said Student Transportation is budgeted at $5.4 million, and that includes salaries for 86 bus drivers at $3.4 million.

Branch And Argo (Beneath Screen)

Justin Cofer, Chief Human Resources Officer, told the Board that even with the increase in salaries approved by the Board in January, vacancies are still running about 25 to 30 percent.

Cofer said Oconee County Schools is making some progress in recruitment, with the increased salaries and other initiatives taken.

Drivers now are able to enroll their children in the school without paying a tuition, and drivers are being recruited from among other employees of the system.

“You are continuing to see a nationwide and statewide challenge in filing bus drivers around the country,” Branch said.

Additional Costs

Childers said “additional considerations” that will have to be dealt with for the actual Fiscal Year 2025 budget include “salary improvements,” increased costs of health insurance, increased contributions to the Teacher Retirement System, “new personnel,” and curriculum adoptions.

“This is just a continuation budget, things that we already know,” Branch said again when Childers presented the chart on “additional considerations.”

Childers said she is anticipating a “roughly $2 million increase” in health care costs alone.

On new personnel, Branch said “obviously as we look at the needs of the system, as well as curriculum adoption...obviously they would make their way into the budget where appropriate going forward.”

Burgess told Branch at the end of the meeting “I think it is important that you laid this out for a lot of different people to see because it’s the expenditure that drive what is required for the school system and the issue is are these legitimate and needed expenditures.”

“That is what leads you to a rationale, well-reasoned budget, so I appreciate going through the effort and time for this,” Burgess said.

The session was the first of this type held by the Board. The Board received criticism at tax hearings last year for not providing enough detail on the budget.


The first video below is of Reifsteck speaking to the Board. I was in the audience section at the rear of the room, so her back was turned to the camera in the video.

I recorded the video myself for two reasons.

First, I wanted to have citizen comment immediately after the meeting so I could begin working on this post and incorporate any citizen comment into it. I had attended the earlier budget session and decided to stay over for this second meeting for that reason.

Oconee County Schools does not live stream its meetings and releases the videos the morning following the meetings.

Second, Oconee County Schools places its camera so that it does not show the speakers who address the Board. I thought even the back of any speakers would be more informative than no image at all.

The second video below is on the YouTube Channel of Oconee County Schools and is of the entire meeting on April 15, 2024.

The Public Communications Section starts at 29:00 with an introduction by Communications Director Colquitt.

Reifsteck began speaking at 29:49, and it is possible in this video to see the faces of the Board as Reifsteck speaks.

The third video is one I recorded, again from the rear of the room, of the called meeting to discuss the budget that preceded the regular meeting.

Oconee County Schools did not video record that meeting.


Joyce Reifsteck said...

Completely ignoring the Georgia Open Meetings Act, school board members had conversations "for a number of months" (Burgess, March 11), made a decision about what they wanted our representatives to do, told the representatives what to do, and then, when the representatives did what the school board told them to do, Mr. Ransom said on April 15, "There was no action taken by the school board.”

Mr. Ransom and I argued for a few minutes, and then Ms. Parrish stated, “Now is not the time to have the debate about this.” She’s absolutely correct: The time to have the debate about this was 3 MONTHS AGO!

When can Mr. Ransom and I debate?

Joyce Reifsteck, Oconee County School Board Post 1 Chair Candidate

Ian Taylor said...

Perhaps Mr. Ransom might recall that the question on the 2022 republican primary ballot was for how vacancies were to be filled, not how the Chair would be selected.

Why did he resign his post, and give up an “incumbent advantage” to run for Post 1 - Chair if the board will just select their Chair?

Maybe he could answer this question at the upcoming forum, but I doubt he will show up.

Ian Taylor