Sunday, May 26, 2024

Hearing On Fiscal Year 2025 Budget For Oconee County Schools Produces Questions From Citizens But No Answers From Board

***Second Required Hearing Scheduled***

The four speakers at the first required public hearing on the tentative Fiscal Year 2025 Budget for Oconee County Schools on Wednesday mostly asked questions.

Particularly focused on questions was the final speaker, Jeff Hood, who pointed out that the Fiscal Year 2020 General Fund Budget–the oldest available on the Oconee County Schools web site–shows projected interest income of $195,000.

Each year since then, interest income has been budgeted at exactly $50,000, including in the tentative budget for Fiscal Year 2025.

Hood wanted to know why the income dropped from 2020 to 2021 and has stayed that way since, and what the actual interest income has been over the years.

Pam Hendrix preceded Hood, and she wanted to know why the budget shows growth in spending, when the projected number of students in the Fiscal Year 2025 budget of 8,451 is down 232 from the number of students in the Fiscal Year 2024 General Fund Budget.

Suzannah Heimel, who spoke second, wanted to know why the number of student taking the SAT was so low given funding levels, and Joyce Reifsteck, who spoke first, wanted the Board to cut spending elsewhere and increase salaries for paraprofessionals and others.

Only three of the five members on the Board attended the meeting–the number required for the quorum to satisfy the legal requirements for a meeting of the Board.

Only Hood got a response to his comments, with Board Chair Kim Argo saying she didn’t know the answer to his questions and recommended that he take up the questions with the school Finance Department.

Introductory Comments

Peter Adams, the newly appointed chief financial officer for Oconee County Schools, was in the audience on Monday, though he didn’t respond to any of the questions asked.

Adams Approachs Podium 5/22/2024

Nor did Superintendent Jason Branch, who was seated next to Argo during the meeting.

“I want to remind everyone the purpose of this meeting,” Adams said when he began his presentation at the beginning of the meeting..

“The Oconee County Board of Education has tentatively adopted the Fiscal Year 25 Budget,” he said. “Georgia law requires that the budget be advertised after the Board of Education adopts the tentative budget.”

“And prior to the final adoption, the Board is required to hold two public meetings for the purpose of providing an opportunity for public input on the tentative budget prior to final adoption,” Adams said.

The second public hearing is scheduled for 4 p.m. on June 3, also at the Central Office Meeting Room, 34 School Street, Watkinsville. Adoption of the budget is scheduled for the 6 p.m. Board meeting on June 10.

Board Members Amy Parrish and Michael Ransom joined Argo at the meeting on Wednesday. Board Members Tim Burgess and Ryan Hammock were missing.

Highlights Of Budget

Adams said the Budget includes a 4 percent “salary improvement for all OCS teachers and staff,” at a cost of $3.2 million. (Rounded, the figure is $3.3 million.)

Also included, Adams said, are salary steps for certified and classified staff for years 22 through 30 at a cost of $2.1 million (rounded: $2.2 million) and a health insurance increase costing $2.2 million.

Adams said the budget includes 19 new positions, costing $1.0 million (rounded: $1.1 million), and a new curriculum, costing $340,587.

“There's the Adjusted Teacher's Retirement contribution increase of $470,000 and the one time custodian supplement of $47,000,” he said.

Adams said the “continuation” budget of $105.2 million and the added new spending of $9.7 million bring the total General Fund Budget for expenditures to $114.9 million.

“Just a reminder that 90 percent of the Fiscal Year 25 tentative Budget is salaries and benefits for staff,” Adams said, “leaving 10 percent for daily operations of facilities.”

Adams said that Oconee County Schools does not have a final tax digest “at this point to be able to set the millage rate.” The budget is based on a millage rate of 15.0, the same as this year.

“There will be future meetings regarding the millage rate for public feedback,” Adams added, reflecting the fact that a 15.0 mill rate will almost certainly represent a tax increase, necessitating additional hearings by state law.


Reifsteck, who was the first to speak, began by congratulating Post 5 Board Member Ransom, to whom she lost on Tuesday in the contest for Post 1 Chair of the Board of Education. Board Chair Argo decided not to run for reelection.

Reifsteck 5/22/5024

“I wish you well,” Reifsteck said. “Thank you for serving and continuing to serve on this Board. I appreciate that you have always been nice, respectful and professional, and I think that you seem genuinely concerned and want to do a good job on this Board.”

“When you're looking at the budget,” she said. “I'm asking that you please take a look at the specific salaries of the people who spend all day, every day, with Oconee County's children: parapros, custodians, nutrition staff.”

The Fiscal Year 2024 annual salary for paraprofessionals at Oconee County Schools is from $17,131 to $23,621, for a custodial worker from $23,423 to $29,698, and for a school food service worker, hourly pay is from $16.56 to $22.95, according to the Oconee County Schools web siteOconee County Schools web site.

“I want you to please look at the individual salaries,” Reifsteck said. “Could a person live in Oconee County on that salary?” she asked.

“I'm not suggesting a reduction in pay for anyone,” she said. “I'm asking that you please put people first before things. Please carve out in the budget some room to pay people a living wage.”


Heimel was next to speak, and she said “I'd like to speak about the budget, the SAT scores, and open records requests.”

Heimel 5/22/2024

Heimel ran unopposed in the Democratic Party Primary for Post 1 on the Board of Commissioners and will meet incumbent Post 1 Commissioners Mark Thomas on the ballot in November. Thomas ran unopposed on the Republican Party Ballot. Heimel is not being supported by the Democratic Party.

“Recently I was stonewalled with a $95 estimate to research and obtain past SAT scores in the district,” Heimel said. “As a result, I learned how to do my own research.”

Heimel said that only 53 percent of “qualified juniors and seniors” took the SAT college entrance exam in 2023, down from 38 percent in 2022, and 36 percent in 2021.

“I find this shocking,” she said. “How does the school board--Board of Education--explain this?”

A simple division of the number of test takers, as reported by Oconee County Schools, by the number of juniors and seniors, produces largely consistent percentages across the last three years of from 35.8 percent to 38.9 percent, not the drop Heimel referenced.

The number of juniors and seniors is taken from official October and March enrollments as reported by Oconee County Schools to the Georgia Department of Education. The number of test takers comes from reports of Oconee County Schools.

“I’d love an explanation for this, especially at a time when the Board of Education is proposing another budget increase that will most likely lead to a tax increase, as it has the past two years,” Heimel said.


Hendrix began her comments by objecting to the timing of the meeting. “People are working,” she said. “They have jobs, and I feel like this is set so people won't come. So that's kind of frustrating to me.”

Hendrix 5/22/2024

Hendrix had challenged unsuccessfully incumbent Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell in the Republican Party Primary on Tuesday and had organized a slate of five other candidates to challenge incumbents. The three Democrats, including Heimel, ran without party support and were uncontested in the Democratic Party Primary.

Hendrix said she feels Oconee County Schools “has top heavy administration,” and that she was unhappy that “we get this one-page budget.”

“The next thing that really, really concerns me, is that our number of students are decreasing,” she said. “What's causing this?”

Hendrix cited correctly the tentative budget this year and the budget approved last year for the student numbers. The tentative Fiscal Year 2025 budget lists 8,451 students. In the approved Fiscal Year 2024 Budget, the figure was 8,683, or a decrease of 232 students.

“Yet we are creating 19 new positions,” she said. “Why do we need 19 new positions? That's crazy.”

Oconee County Schools reported to the Georgia Department of Education that it had 8,423 students enrolled in October of 2021, 8,531 enrolled in October of 2022, and 8,535 enrolled in October of 2023. That is an increase of four students from October of 2022 to October of 2023.

The official March enrollments reported by Oconee County Schools were 8,438 in March of 2022, 8,517 in March of 2023, and 8,496 in March of 2024. That is a decrease of 21 students from March of 2023 to March of 2024.


Hood began telling the Board “I have a couple questions I hope someone can answer.”

Hood 5/22/2024

Hood said he had been reviewing the proposed tentative budget as well as those going back to 2020.

“So from 2021 to the proposed 2025, we've got $50,000 in interest income,” he said. “But then if you look at 2020, it, was, I think it was $195,000.”

Hood was correct. The Fiscal Year 2020 approved budget lists $195,000 as Interest Income in the revenue column, and $50,000 is used in each subsequent year.

“So why would we budget the same amount, $50,000, for five consecutive years when it was $195,000 in 2020 for interest income?” Hood asked.

“I'd also be interested in,” Hood said, “that was the budget, but what did we actually earn from the money that was invested?”

Hood also said he found a discrepancy between the Fiscal Year 2024 budget in the Georgia Data database of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia and on the web site of Oconee County Schoolson the web site of Oconee County Schools.

“There's two budgets floating around from last year,” Hood said, “and now I'm wondering which is correct. They both say final.”

Hood said the one on the Oconee County Schools “needs to be sent to them to get it corrected if we have the correct one on our website.”

Response From Argo

No one responded to comments of the first three speakers, though Ransom did thank Reifsteck for her compliments of him.

When Hood had finished, Argo told him “As far as the interest income, I think you could reach out to our Finance Department to get the answer. I certainly don't know off the top of my head.”

Adams remained in the room, but Argo did not ask him to respond.

The Fiscal Year 2024 Budget on the Carl Vinson web site incorrectly lists the millage rate at 15.5, rather than the adopted 15.0, and the rate charged by the county for collection of the ad valorem tax at 2.5 percent, rather than the 2.0 percent the county charged.

The tax digest is listed at $3.3 billion in the final budget on the Oconee County Schools web site, and $3.0 billion on the Carl Vinson site.

Total revenue in the final Fiscal Year 2024 budget was $106.1 million, rather than the $103.9 million in the budget on the Carl Vinson site.

In the April Year-To-Date Budget Report–released to the Board at its meeting on May 13--investment income was listed at $2.2 million, in the budget line showing $50,000 as projected revenue.

In the final Year-To-Date Budget Report for Fiscal year 2023--released to the Board on Sept. 18 of last year--investment income was listed at $1.4 million in the budget line listing $50,000 as the budgeted amount. (This is a correction. The original version of this post mistakenly listed the 2023 figure also as $2.2 million.)

On July 17 of 2023, the Board approved an amendment for the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget that changed the $50,000 interest income to an even $1 million, even though the received amount turned out to be $1.4 million. 


Oconee County Schools did not video record the public hearing on May 22.

Because of a scheduling conflict, I could not attend the public hearing.

Terry Thompson used my camera and tripod to record the video below.

Adams began his comments at 0:31 in the video.

Reifsteck began speaking at 4:06 in the video.

Heimel began speaking at 7:27.

Hendrix began her comments at 9:27.

Hood began speaking at 12:54 in the video.

1 comment:

Jim Gaither said...

Jeff Hood, if you would be kind enough to share any facts you might learn regarding interest rates and interest bearing BoE accounts, it would be very much appreciated. Thank you.