Saturday, April 27, 2024

Oconee County School Board Candidate Forum Included Criticism Of Current Board, With Current Board Member Engaging In Exchange

***Audience Asked Their Own Questions***

Oconee County Post 5 School Board Member Michael Ransom was in a unique position among the members of the panel at the candidate forum on Thursday night.

None of the other seven candidates seated at the front of the room in the Community Center at Oconee Veterans Park is currently on the Board.

On the May 21 Republican Party Primary Ballot, Ransom is not defending his current Post 5 position, but rather running for Post 1, which is the chair position on the Board.

Three of the six citizens who asked questions of the of the candidates during the two-hour-long forum were critical of the current Board or Oconee County Schools, and five of the other seven candidates offered at least mild criticism of the current Board in their introductory comments.

Joyce Reifsteck, who is challenging Ransom for the Post 1 Chair position, was most strident, criticizing the Board repeatedly during the evening for what she termed a lack of transparency.

Reifsteck most pointedly criticized the Board–including Ransom, who was seated beside her--for not keeping the public informed as it worked on legislation approved by the state General Assembly putting a referendum on the Oconee County ballot in November.

That referendum, if passed, will strip either Reifstreck or Ransom of the chairmanship of the School Board. No Democrat has qualified to be on the ballot opposite Reifsteck or Ransom on that November ballot.

Ransom did say the Board can do more to address concerns about how the Board communicates with the public, but he let that specific criticism from Reifsteck pass without comment.

Candidate Format

The eight candidates were gathered for a forum focused exclusively on for Post 1, Post 4 and Post 5 on the Oconee County Board of Education. About 40 people were in the audience.

Prochaska And Panel

Reifsteck and Ransom are competing for the party nomination for Post 1 on the May 21 Republican Party Primary Ballot. That position currently is held by Kim Argo, who is not seeking re-election.

They were joined by Russell Toms and Adam Hammond, who are competing in the May 21 Republican Primary for Post 4, currently held by Tim Burgess, who also is not seeking re-election.

Andy Pippin, who also is running as a Republican on May 21 for Post 4, did not attend because of work commitments and did not send a representative.

Stephen Aleshire and Brock Toole were at the table at the front of the room. Both are on the May 21 Republican Party Primary ballot, seeking to replace Ransom as Post 5 Board member.

Also at the table were Sheri Ward Long, running as a Democrat for Post 4, but without party endorsement, and Katie Green, running with party support for Post 5.

Long and Green will appear on the May 21 Democratic Party Primary ballot, but neither has opposition.

Michael Prochaska, editor and co-publisher of The Oconee Enterprise, and I organized the forum. Stories about the forum are scheduled to appear in the upcoming edition of the Enterprise as well.

Introductory Comments Post 1

Prochaska, who moderated the session, invited Reifsteck to be the first to use the allotted three minutes for introduction.

“We have great schools here in Oconee County,” she said. “We have a really wonderful staff. Parents who are very involved. Hard working students who excel.”

“As I’ve been talking to people, though,” she continued. “I’ve been hearing a lot about the School Board...They feel like interacting with the School Board is becoming increasingly frustrating.”

“They are using words like secretive, and arrogant and self-important and detached,” she said. “I’m not saying that individuals are doing that. What I’m saying is that over the years a culture has developed.”

“And I think it is a culture that the School Board has kind of gotten stuck in,” she said. “And I think it is time to sort of help them out. I would like to see a School Board that is described with words like transparent, humble, unpretentious, and caring.”

Ransom said he has been on the Board for three and a half years now and “getting on the Board is a very big learning curve.”

“Just learning how education operates, learning the acronyms, learning how to make everything work with the budgets and then how that works with the state took a while to really understand,” he said.

“I think now that I’ve got the experience,” Ransom said. “I want to run for Post 1 once Ms. Argo said she wasn’t interesting in running for the chair any more. Because I’d like to continue the excellence here."

“We’re a good school system, but there are things we could work on,” he said. “We push out a lot of communication on Facebook, but we need to do a better job of explaining what we’re pushing out.”

Introductory Comments Post 4

Toms said he was running for the School Board “because I love our kids at a really, really high level.”

“Oconee County is such a unique place in our state,” he said. “Everybody is friendly, everybody participates in part of the community. Our school system and our community, really is kind of a like symbiotic relationship.”

“I want to make sure that our schools stay as good as they are today,” he said. “Ten or 20 years from now, when I have grandchildren going through the school system.”

“That’s why I’m running for School Board,” he added.

Long said she “is running for School Board because I am in love with the kids.”

She said she has been a paraprofessional and a substitute teacher in Oconee County Schools “‘and I saw some kids who are falling through the cracks. And those kids needed help.”

"A lot of times you think everything’s perfect in this county,” she said. “That’s how they see this whole county. Just everything is perfect. And it is not.”

“I also believe we need to go back to the books specifically for the elementary school aged children,” Long said. “A lot of these kids are actually falling behind with all of the Chromebooks we have.”

“I got into this race,” Hammond said, “because a lot is on the line. When you think about our culture right now and a lot of the national narrative, there’s a lot at stake. And I feel I have the unique experience and qualification to really make a positive difference on the Oconee County School Board.”

Hammond said he is the executive director of the Georgia 4-H Foundation, “the largest youth development organization in the state of Georgia.”

“Through my role I have experience with budgeting, personnel, facility management,” he said. “And that’s really what a Board Member does.”

“I want the School Board to be representative of the community and not an extension of the superintendent’s office,” Hammond said. “The taxpayers and voters need to have a say in what’s going on.”

Introductory Comments Post 5

Aleshire said one of the reasons he is running for School Board is “a concern about taxes...Another thing that I’m very concerned about is the academics.”

“The academics, in my view, has become narrowed to college only and everybody else is kind of subordinate,” Aleshire said. “I do feel that the trades have been underemphasized.”

“School books, also in my view,” he said, “also need to be emphasized more as well...Children are now learning only on a keyboard. They cannot even sign their own names. They don’t even recognize cursive.”

Aleshire said questions need to be asked about “how much building, physical structure do we need for the amount of people who may or may not actually arrive.”

Toole said “I believe that we have a great school system, but I believe there are things that could be done differently. I believe there are things that we could work on to make it a better school system.”

Toole said he served as an assistant superintendent in charge of operations at Oconee County Schools, stepping down in 2022 to start two businesses.

“The qualifications that I have from the school system, knowing it from the inside out,” Toole said, “that learning curve, I wouldn’t have that learning curve.”

“I understand the intricacies of the system,” he continued. “I don’t understand it from a Board standpoint, for the School Board. However I do sit on quite a few boards, and I do understand the boardroom.”

Greene said she is an instructional leader at Clarke Central High School in Athens-Clarke County where she is the science coach.

“So I coach 12 science teachers to try to help them use the computers a little less and be a little more student centered and a little less teacher centered,” she said.

“I really do want to insure that all students have a great experience in Oconee County Schools,” she said. “I know that sometimes students fall through the cracks.”

Green said she believes that the enrollments will grow in the future and she wants to know how Oconee County Schools is going to prepare “for different types of people to move here, people who may not have always lived in a rural area, people who may not have always lived in Georgia, people who may not have always lived in the United States.”

Questions From The Audience

We asked those posing questions to be concise and direct their questions at all of the candidates. Some were more successful than others.


I have boiled those questions down, but the full question can be found in the video below, at the place shown in the parentheses by the name of the questioner.

Q 1. Julie Mauck (30:30) was the first to speak, and she said the Board had not approved the request to adopt the LifeWise program to allow K to 5 students to leave campus during the school day for religious instruction and asked each member of the panel if she or he would be willing to have “dialog about” bible education and “make it accessible to these families who want it?”

Q 2. Jonathan Veit (45:21) said “We have problems in the schools with drugs, alcohol and nicotine–during the school days...What are your ideas for dealing with that problem?”

Q 3. Pam Hendrix (1:00:20) asked “What would you do if we had to make some emergency cuts to our budget?” Hendrix is on the May 21 Republican Party Primary ballot running for chair of the Board of Commissioners.

Q 4. Laura King (1:13:37) asked “If you had a choice between cutting spending and raising taxes, which would you go with?” King is on the Democratic Party Ballot on May 21 seeking to be elected Clerk of the Superior Court. She has no opposition but is not endorsed by the Democratic Party.

Q 5. Dan Magee (1:30:17) said the Board votes 5 to 0 on every issue that comes before it and asked “is it possible to have some respectful disagreement and not agree with the superintendent on every single proposal?”

Q 6. Jaylene Katt (1:41:40) asked “will you make it a policy to ensure gender at birth is used for bathrooms and participation in sports in all of our schools?”

Summaries Of Responses

Each candidate was given two minutes to respond to the question as it was asked, with the order shifted to change who received the question first.


I have simplified greatly the responses below to include that part of the answer most responsive to the question asked. The full responses are in the video below.

Responses to all six questions are presented below first for Post 1 candidates, then for Post 4 candidates, and then for Post 5 candidates.

Responses Post 1 Chair Candidates

Q1. Bible Instruction

Reifsteck said “My opinion as a School Board member doesn’t matter. What matters is that when the School Board functions as the School Board is supposed to function, people have a voice.”

Ransom answered first and said he thinks what had been proposed “was not logistically feasible.”

Q2. Drugs, Alcohol And Nicotine In The Schools

Reifsteck said “it is absolutely the job of the School Board to deal with this problem...The School Board sets the policy. It is handed down to the superintendent and the schools and it is their job to implement the policy.

Ransom said “The School Board does set the policy and then gives it to the superintendent to carry forward to the administrators...We get involved if there is a tribunal...” He also said the schools need to educate the students on the negative effects of drugs, alcohol, and nicotine.

Q3. Cuts If Necessary

Reifsteck said the budget session held by the Board on April 15 did not include line item figures. “So how can you go trimming fat, you don’t know where the fat is?...It wasn’t a real budget. It was more of the same smoke and mirrors hidden thing that I have been watching this School Board do for too many years.”

Ransom said it isn’t possible to present a budget until the tax digest is known. “Things that could get cut?...We could get away with having larger classrooms and more students per teacher until we get a recovery again. Obviously, that’s not an ideal scenario, but that is one way to get through some of those tough times.”

Q4. Cutting Spending Vs. Raising Taxes?

Reifsteck said “we need a lot more access to the budget...You should not have to be a detective. You should not have to be a lawyer...I would absolutely cut spending.”

Ransom said “as far as cutting taxes or spending, is not a time to raise taxes when everybody is hurting. When we’re in times of pretty good economics, if we’ve got stuff that we need, we might have to look at raising taxes.”

Q5. Disagreements Among Board, With Superintendent?

Reifsteck said “it is absolutely possible for people to have respectful disagreements. We’re not seeing respectful disagreement because we’re not seeing the kind of discussions that are supposed to be happening at the School Board meetings.” Reifsteck then turned to House Bill 1496, passed by the legislature at the end of the just completed session, that ask voters to allow the Board to select its own chair, rather than allow either Reifsteck or Ransom to assume that position, based on the election. “That was an absolute travesty... Mr. (Rep. Marcus) Wiedower and Mr. (Rep. Houston) Gaines, I’ve been told, were responsible for this, but neither of them returns my phone calls. So I don’t know what the truth is about how that all happened. What I do know is that it happened not in accordance to the Georgia open meeting laws. And not in accordance with the School Board’s own policy. So what that leaves us with is a couple of legislators on a Sunday afternoon decided, hey, let’s make this new rule for the Oconee County School System on their behalf...That terrifies me because nobody will take credit for having been behind it.”

Reifsteck And Ransom

Ransom did not respond to Reifsteck but said “it is possible to have some discussion and have some disagreements. It’s rare. I’ll admit it is rare that we vote against each other on different topics, but for the most part, when we’re making decisions, we’re looking at how is that going affect kids, how is it going to affect teachers. And a lot of decisions that we’re making we agree on those decisions...For the most part we do vote alike just because we’re all in agreement and like minded for the most part of what we see as being beneficial for Oconee County.”

Q 6. Use Gender at Birth For Bathrooms and Sports

Reifsteck said sports access “is a really big problem. When the School Board functions as it should, and we start to talk about policy...that’s when we need to have  this discussion. And we need to have this discussion out in the open...And yes, it is absolutely a big problem.”

Ransom said “love children where they are. Make sure they’re provided an education and what facilities they need....I’ve got three girls...and it is not fair to them to mix genders in a bathroom. Provide a bathroom for everybody who needs a bathroom, but I’m not for mixing genders in one bathroom or mixing genders in sport.”

Responses Post 4 Candidates

Q 1. Bible Instruction

Toms said “It would worry me, especially with young children, having the state decide the program on how my child is going to be taught religion.”

Long said “Let’s do something after school and the children who wanted to do something like that or the parents who wanted to do something like that” could participate.

Hammond said he believes in the “separation of church and state” and the type of program proposed “creates a slippery slow and we do need to be careful.”

Q2. Drugs, Alcohol And Nicotine In The Schools

Toms answered first and said “I think our principals handle it pretty well right now...Those students get punished...There is a process that our administration follows...I don’t think the School Board necessarily would set the rules on how those are handled.”

Long said “There should be some suspension for those kids who are getting caught, whether it is in the school or at a school function.”

Hammond said “one of the things I want to press on and want to find out more about is how they are enforcing the drug policies at the schools.” He said the focus should not only be on school accomplishments but on problems that exists in the schools.

Q3. Cuts If Necessary

Toms, who attended the budget session on April 15, said “I was expecting more of a line by line explanation of the budget...I know there is $3 million and something going toward maintenance. I really want to know what every single one of those dollars is going to.” (The presented figure was $2.9 million for repair and maintenance.)


Long (answered first) and said “You gave me a hard question. I am so sorry, I do not know enough about the budget itself to really answer that question.”

Hammond said “I’m a big believer in zero-based budgeting. I think we need to look at everything from day one and say what is in this budget. What is a need? What is a want?...Last year they reduced the mill and there was a big celebration, but actually the taxes went up.”

Q4. Cutting Spending Vs. Raising Taxes?

Toms said “if given the choice, cut spending...If I have to make the decision to increase taxes, I want to make sure I’m increasing taxes not because of something my community would think was frivolous, but rather putting the students and teachers first.”

Long said “cut spending. There are probably a few salaries around that could be cut...We should be a community for all of this, not only for our students, but for the people who do live in this county and who have been here for a very long time.”


Hammond answered first and said “when it comes to your question, cutting spending or raising taxes, I’m for cutting spending.”

Q5. Disagreements Among Board, With Superintendent?

Toms said “I’ve never been a rubber stamp. Never...I can promise in good faith that if I feel it is a no, I will say no.”

Long said “I think that teachers and parents need to have more information...The little Board meeting room is not being enough to have parents and teachers come and have a voice to say something.”

Hammond said people don’t agree on everything “and I think it’s important that we have those conversations. We have them in public...I want to be able to have those conversations in front of the people because I want them to be able to know how I arrived at that decision.”

Q 6. Use Gender at Birth For Bathrooms and Sports

Toms said “I think that we should provide a safe space for every child that goes to school in the school system. If you have someone who is born a certain sex and has decided or feels led that they are now going to be a different gender, I don’t believe that they should be allowed to use the other gender’s bathroom...And it’s the same with sports.”

Long said “God created male and female. That’s how I feel. I think boys need to be on boys teams and girls need to be on girls teams. I’m glad that there are bathrooms that they don’t have to share.”

Hammond said “I think for the most part we all agree. Boys need to use boys bathrooms. Girls need to use girls bathrooms. And they don’t need to mix in sports. ...The classroom should not be a place for politics...We need to be teaching our students how to be critical thinkers.”

Responses Post 5 Candidates

Q 1. Bible Instruction

Aleshire said “I think ethics is almost entirely the responsibility of the parent...I would support it, but I don’t know its pragmatic.”


Toole said “I think any time we can get a little more Jesus we need to...I think there has to be a creative way to look at it, and I don’t know what the means, to be honest with you.”

Green said “I like to keep my personal and professional life separate. For that reason I would say home is a great place to do religious education...It seems like a better idea for them to do something like that after school.”

Q2. Drugs, Alcohol And Nicotine In The Schools

Aleshire said “you enforce rules to the max no matter how small the infraction...The parents also should know explicitly what happened...There should be health education” so children know the effects of drugs, alcohol and nicotine.

Toole said “the first thing we have to do if there is a problem is recognize there is a problem and not hide it...If you get caught doing something, you need to be punished for it...In our society vaping is a problem, period...Hold them accountable. There’s things out there that will allow us to do that.”

Green said “We’re not doing the actual enforcing as School Board members, but we can make sure we’re hiring good leaders who are confirming that rules are being followed.”

Q3. Cuts If Necessary

Aleshire said “we have a very large administrative building right now going up..., but how many people are going to be needed in that building? How many administrators do you need?...I think it would have to be judicious cutting of administrative people.”

Toole said “first and foremost you would have to go through line by line and see the difference in needs and wants...You keep instruction time, but there may be certain areas of our school system where we actually can cut, where we can trim the fat.”


Green said she was impressed to learn that Oconee County Schools spends much less per pupil than does Clark and other surrounding counties, “I was surprised by how much I saw of budget went towards the superintendent’s office...So I would like to look into the upper level administrative areas we could cut from.”

(The current budget figure for the superintendent’s office is $564,189 for the superintendent and two others in that office.)

Q4. Cutting Spending Vs. Raising Taxes?

Aleshire talked about audits and bonded indebtedness (which King had mentioned) but did not answer the question she posed on spending cuts versus taxes.

Toole said “the short answer is cut spending.”

Green said “Sometimes you have to spend the money to get what you need to be effective. So frankly I would need to have a lot more access to the be able to say whether I would cut or raise.”

Q5. Disagreements Among Board, With Superintendent?

Aleshire said “there has to be open discussion. I think some of these decisions probably are made behind the scenes. I don’t know exactly where they are made but they are made elsewhere...Yes, I think it is very important to have disagreements. You should have a respectful discussion without people throwing things.”

Toole said “I’ve probably had hundreds of respectful disagreements with our superintendent...As far as having a respectful disagreement with anybody that I sat on with the Board, I can do that tactfully, professionally, get my point across without being ugly.”

Green said “it would be helpful to the community to know a little bit more about the discussion went into passing important policies.”

Q 6. Use Gender at Birth For Bathrooms and Sports

Aleshire said “there are several things already occurring in the classrooms to contribute to this level of chaos that is ultimately, sorry, a Marxist intent...And I don’t believe in social emotional learning programs. That’s it.”

Toole spoke first and said “I believe there is two genders...I believe we have faculty bathrooms for people who are transgender...I don’t believe it is fair for certain people to play sports that’s not their gender. What your birth certificate says is where you should play sports.”

Green said “At Clarke Central we have bathrooms for whoever needs to use them...If (sports access) were brought to the School Board as a problem, I would imagine that the School Board would work together to find a solution that would make sure that all kids’ lives were valued while making sure that we’re meeting everybody’‘s needs.”


The video below is of the entire meeting.

Reifsteck began her introductory comments at 3:11 in the video.

Ransom made his introductory comments at 6:41.

Toms followed with his comments at 9:07.

Long spoke initially at 10:58.

Hammond made his introductory comments at 14:53.

Aleshire spoke initially at 18:35.

Toole made is introductory comments at 21:01.

Green made her introduction at 23:21.

Mauck asked her question at 30:30. The responses followed

Veit asked his question at 45:21.

Hendrix asked her question at 1:00:20.

King asked her question at 1:13:37.

Magee asked his question at 1:30:17.

Katt asked her question at 1:41:40.

1 comment: said...

Lee, Thank you for an excellent Forum and your write-up of it that is spot-on. The candidates' responses let us know exactly what to expect should they be elected.