Monday, June 17, 2024

Oconee School Board Approves Fiscal Year 2025 Budget, Protocol Limiting Board Member Access To Information From Superintendent

***Two Citizens Comment On Budget***

The Oconee County Board of Education on Monday passed its Fiscal Year 2025 General Fund Budget, approving without discussion $114.9 million in spending.

Though the action moved what had been labeled a “tentative” budget to a “final” budget, the revenue side of the document remains incomplete, pending analysis of the county’s tax digest and the setting of a final millage rate.

The approved budget shows as a placeholder the millage rate at 15.0, the same as for the 2024 Fiscal Year that ends on June 30. The 15.0 rate produces $116.6 in revenue, or $1.7 million more than projected spending.

Two citizens used the Public Communication section of the meeting on Monday to comment on that budget.

One of the speakers questioned the revenue side, saying the budget likely underestimates revenue, and the other questioned the increased spending, specifically for 19 new positions while the budget projects a decrease in enrollments.

The unusually long meeting, the only one the Board will hold this month, included a series of budget reports, construction updates, and requests by Superintendent Jason Branch for action on Board policy documents.

At Branch’s request, the Board reaffirmed a policy in place that sets restrictions on Board requests for information about operation of Oconee County Schools.

Budget Presentation

Peter Adams, Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, provided the Board with an overview of the Budget during his Business Services Report on Monday.

Screen Shot: Board Votes To Approve Fiscal Year 2025
General Fund Budget 6/10/2024

Adams' comments were a shortened version of those he had made at the second public hearing on the budget on June 3 and at the first on May 22.

Adams said the budget includes $3.2 million ($3.297 million) for pay raises, $2.1 million ($2.187 million) for increased salary steps, and $1.1 million ($1.077 million) for 19 new positions. (In the presentation at the budget hearings, the figure used for the salary steps was $2.264 million.)

“This is the requirements by the state,” Adams said of the positions. “A third of them are special education positions, and the rest are for standardization.”

At the June 3 meeting, Adams said the news positions were “really a requirement by the state for growth we have here in the county.”

Adams told the Board that “we have received our tax digest “ from Tax Commissioner Jennifer Riddle and that his office “is in the process of reviewing that information to see where we are.”

Riddle will produce a report that allocates changes in the digest due to inflation and change resulting from real growth. She will then calculate the millage rate that would be required to offset inflationary change in the digest.

If the Board sets a millage rate higher than the figure determined by Riddle as the rollback rate, the Board will be required to hold three public hearings prior to setting the millage rate.

“Hearings, should they be necessary, will be announced at a later date,” Adams said.

First Citizen Comment

When citizens were invited to speak on any topic, Ian Taylor came forward and focused his comments on the revenue side of the Fiscal Year 2025 Budget.

Screen Shot Board Listening To Taylor 6/10/2024
(Camera Directed To Exclude Speakers)

Taylor said the budget process has been more “transparent” this year than last, but “it did appear to me that this budget was presented with a full expectation that it would be accepted without question.”

“Even the most cursory examination of this budget should at the very least invoke some questions,” he continued.

“Looking solely at the revenue portion,” Taylor said, “just not adding $1.67 million to the fund balance, reducing the fund balance to 15 percent maximum as required by your own rules, and anticipating an interest income of close to $1.5 million would reduce the amount of taxes that you would take from residents this year by $5 million.”

“Especially outrageous to me is the assumption that only $50,000 would be earned in interest this coming year, when this year to date you've earned $2.1 million,” he said. “Last year you earned $1.1 million.”

“Even back in 2021, when the rates was 0.01 percent, you earned $161,000, so putting $50,000 into this budget is, without question to me, unsensible.”

“You will notice, nowhere have I asked you to cut the spending,” Taylor said, “although I do believe that if the will was there it could be cut a little bit.”

“So I'm asking you, please just spend some more time on this budget, get it tightened up a little bit, and in other words just be a little curious.

Second Citizen Comment

Suzannah Heimel came to the podium next and focused immediately on the 19 new positions included in the expenditure budget.

Heimel said that Adams had said at the June 3 meeting “that most of those positions are required due to the growth in our enrollment. In reality growth is down, in fact it's nonexistent.”

“The enrollment for next year is projected at 8,451,” she said, referring to the figure used in the Fiscal Year 2025 Budget. “This year, enrollment was 8,464, and last year it was 8,612, so enrollment is actually down, not up.”

Different figures are reported by Oconee County Schools for different purposes, but the figure used in the Fiscal Year 2024 budget was 8,683, and in the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget, it was 8,579.

“I can't figure out what numbers you're looking at that says the enrollment is up,” Heimel said, “when I'm taking the state numbers that are reported by the county that says it's down. So I'm just questioning the budget. I'm questioning the budget increase.”

“I think we need to thoroughly look at this,” she said, “and we need to really decide, do we really need to do all of this spending?”

Argo And Branch Respond

In a rare back-and-forth with a citizen, Board Chair Kim Argo told Heimel that “I believe it's my understanding that some of the new positions that have been added have been driven by IEPs.”

IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. The budget presentation lists three new Special Education Teachers and three Special Education Paraprofessionals.

“When we have a special needs student that comes in, and there's a certain requirement we have to provide the service, so that's part of it,” Argo said.

Heimel asked if those special education students were the children of teachers and staff who live outside the county and have their children enrolled in Oconee County Schools.

“Are you saying that we are required to provide instructional support for those students even if they aren't county students just because they're enrolled?” Heimel asked.

“We don't differentiate as to whether the kid is in-county or out-of-county,” Branch interjected. “We serve the needs of all kids. State law requires us to allow staff members to bring their kids to the school system.”

When Heimel had finished, Branch said “I'm here every day if you'd like to call and talk sometime. Be happy to talk with you.”

Heimel is running as a Democrat in the Nov. 5 election for Board of Commissioners Post 1, currently held by Republican Mark Thomas. Heimel is not being supported by the Democratic Party.

Policy Documents

In his Superintendent’s Report, Branch said “we do have Board Norms and Protocols as an action item. That is at the request of the Georgia School Boards Association.”

Graphic From Approved Policy Statement

Branch said the School Boards Association “asked all Board members and Boards to officially approve” the documents.

“We've had those for some time,” Branch said, and they are “linked and they’re also continue to be linked on our website.”

Included are documented labeled “Review of Board Procedures,” “Board-Superintendent Relations,” and “Chain of Command for Problem Solving.”

The first states that the Board and the superintendent “shall go into a retreat environment” for such things as to “Develop and/or review goals.”

Board-Superintendent Relations

The second states that the “most important function” of the School Board is “legislation” and “execution of the policies should be the function of the Superintendent.”

“Members of the Board, from time to time, may request information about various aspects of school district operations,” according to this document.

“Board members should use caution in making such requests, refraining from superfluous or excessive inquiries,” it reads, “since staff response requires that they spend valuable time away from important duties and responsibilities.”

“All such requests shall be made to the Superintendent,” it continues. “Requests for information requiring significant research and development, or that will require considerable time for preparation, shall be made in writing.”

“The Superintendent shall submit an estimate of the preparation and staff time required to respond to the request and may recommend that the request come from the Board,” the policy reads.

“Any written information developed or provided to a member of the Board shall be provided to all members of the Board,” it concludes.

Problem Solving Document

The final document is written from the point of view of problems involving parents.

“(I)f a parent has an issue at a particular school,” it states, “we ask that they try to resolve it at the school level first by contacting the teacher, assistant principal, or principal. If there is no suitable resolution, the next step would be to contact the superintendent.”

“Likewise, if a parent has an issue with a particular department (transportation, school nutrition, etc.),” the document reads, “they should contact the appropriate chief officer or director in charge of that department. Again, if there is no suitable resolution, the next step would be to contact the superintendent.”

Nothing in the document addresses how a citizen who does not have children in the schools would be able to engage in problem solving involving Oconee County Schools.

Board Member Tim Burgess asked if the norms and protocols were in place for more than two years. Branch said they were.

The Board approved the documents without further discussion.

Other Reports

The Board had participated in the ribbon cutting for the Instructional Support Center on Monday morning, and Fred Ricketson, Director of Facilities, said “it was really great to welcome people” to the facility and “I really appreciate all the positive feedback.”

“Where we are today is we have a punch list we're working through,” he said. “The work is not done, but the pace has quickened very much.”

Ricketson said work is complete on the classroom additions at Malcolm Bridge Elementary School and work is underway on the renovations at Rocky Branch Elementary School.

“They're moving along at quite rapid pace to get that building ready for the fall when students return,” he said.

Adams, in his Business Services Report, said that Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) collections in April were up 4.8 percent over April of last year, and the average change from the same month a year change over the last 14 months has been 8.0 percent.

Total ELOST collections now stand at just less than $16.0 million, with bond payments of $3.1 million made to date against $46.7 million due. Payments will continue through 2033.

The cash balance for the General Fund on May 31 was $58.2 million, down from $60.4 on April 30.

Other Board Action

The Board voted to spend $82,566 with Total Strength and Speed for renovations of the Weight Room at North Oconee High School. Funding will come from Boosters and the Athletic Fund.

The Board also approved a $73,282 contract with Daktronics to install a sound system in the scoreboard at the Oconee Count High School stadium. Funding will come from Boosters and the Athletic Fund.

The Board voted to approve a $278,926 contract with Athens Janitor supply for custodial supplies for Oconee County Schools.

The Board approved a contract for $3,446 to remove and dispose of two trailers on the 34 School Street site that were used for Information Technology, which will move to the other buildings on that site.

In its executive session, the Board approved a personnel report that included the naming of Ryan White, currently Chief Technology Officer, as Chief Operations Officer, effective July 3, 2024.

The item is labeled as an “Informational Item” that is “presented to the Board for notification purposes only.”


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

Branch made his Superintendent’s Report at 19:19 in the video.

Adams began his Business Service Report at 26:29 in the video.

Ricketson gave his report at 41:23 in the video.

Taylor made his comments at 53:42 in the video.

Heimel began speaking at 57:04.

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