Sunday, June 09, 2024

Second Oconee County School Board Budget Hearing Includes Citizen Complaints Of Board Member And His Criticism Of Citizens

***Budget Scheduled To Be Adopted On Monday***

Only two citizens stepped forward on Monday to speak at the second and final budget hearing held by the Oconee County Board of Education before it adopts the Fiscal Year 2025 Budget at its meeting tomorrow (Monday).

Both had spoken at the first budget hearing held by the Board on May 22, and each made some of the same points at the second hearing as at the first.

The meeting on Monday was more tense than the first, however, as Board Member Tim Burgess, who had not attended the first meeting, attempted to turn the tables and ask questions of Pam Hendrix after she addressed the Board.

Hendrix said she wanted answers to the questions she had posed and did not want to answer questions from Burgess or engage in an exchange with him.

Joyce Reifsteck followed and said she understood Hendrix’s unwillingness to respond to Burgess, calling Burgess “real snippy and snarky and insulting to people who come here” to speak.

Burgess waited until Reifsteck had finished, and then he said the critics need to “start paying attention” to the reports given to the Board before making their comments and that the information being sought by the critics is available “if you're willing to understand it, and learn about it.”

Also on Monday, Oconee County Schools announced that Ryan White had been named as the new Chief Operations Officer for Oconee County Schools, taking on some of the responsibilities of Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff, who has been selected superintendent of Barrow County Schools.

The move has not been acted on by the Board, which normally approves Superintendent Jason Branch’s recommendations for this type of change in status as part of its personnel action at the end of its meetings.

Introductory Comments

Peter Adams, the newly named Chief Financial Officer for Oconee County Schools, opened the meeting on Monday by reminding the Board and those present of the purpose of the meeting.

Reifsteck Confronting Burgess 6/3/2024
Visible are Branch, Parrish, Burgess,
Michael Ransom (L-R)

“Prior to final adoption (of the budget), the board is required to hold two public hearings for the purpose of providing an opportunity for public input on the tentative budget prior to final adoption,” he said.

The first of those required meeting was on May 22, he said, and the second was the one on Monday (June 3).

Adams then reviewed what he said were some of the “budget highlights.”

The tentative budget presented by Superintendent Branch and adopted preliminarily on May13 includes a $2,500 salary increase for all OCS staff and teachers, at a cost of $3.3 million (Adams said $3.2 million, but the slide presented shows the higher figure), 52 percent of which is covered by state funds.

It also includes $2.2 million for new salary steps for certified and noncertified employees, with all of that covered by local funds, and $2.2 million for a health insurance increase, with 52 percent of that funded by the state, Adams said.

Adams said that the budget also includes $1.1 million for 19 new positions, which he said is “really a requirement by the state for growth we have here in the county.”

An additional $340,587 is required to cover the costs of a new curriculum the Board has adopted for science, social studies, and English Language Arts at the elementary level and for high school science and social studies.

Total expenditures are $114.9 million in the budget, Adams said. The budget he presented shows $116.6 million in revenue, but Adams reminded the Board that the revenue estimate is tentative pending receipt of a report on the size of the tax digest.

Hendrix As First Speaker

Hendrix, who unsuccessfully challenged Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chair in the May 21 Republican Primary, criticized the Board for the timing of the hearing, as she had done when she spoke at the first hearing on May 22.

“Once again,” she said, “we're up here at four o'clock when most people are working. It's obvious to me you don't want to hear from us.”

Hendrix said the single page budget released to the public before the hearing was inadequate and less than other school systems she had checked on had provided.

She said even with that one-page budget she noticed that interest income was only $50,000 yet the budget surplus shown in the budget is $40 million.

“You've got to be making more than $50,000,” she said. “That just seems sloppy to me.”

Hendrix said that the Fiscal Year 2025 Budget projects enrollments of 8,451 students this coming year, down from 8,683 in last year’s budget, or a drop of 232 students.

Hendrix said people are considering alternatives to Oconee County Schools, and “These public schools have more and more money for fewer and fewer children,” she said.

Hendrix also said that the Board should be clearer about how the $40 million in the Fund Balance is going to be used.

“Why can't you just tell us what those committed funds are for?” she said.

She also said the estimated ratio of unassigned fund balance to expenditures of 18.2 percent shown in the budget exceeds the Board’s own policy stating that the ratio should not be greater than 15 percent

Exchange With Burgess

When Hendrix had finished speaking, Burgess asked her: “Would you be willing to answer a couple questions?”

Hendrix Leaving Podium 6/3/2024

“No, I don't think so,” Hendrix replied. “I mean, why should I answer questions?”

“Well, I was going to respond,” Burgess said. “I was prepared to respond to a couple things you raised, but if you don't want to talk about them, that's Okay.”

“Well, you said you weren’t talking,” Hendrix said, referring to the introductory comments Communications Director Steven Colquitt read before citizen were allowed to speak. Colquitt said that, in general, Board members do not respond to citizen comments.

“I’m prepare to talk right now, unless you’re not willing to,” Burgess said.

“No,” Hendrix said as she walked away from the podium.

Reifsteck As Second Speaker

Joyce Reifsteck, who had run unsuccessfully for the Republican Party nomination for Post 1 Chair of the Board of Education, addressed Burgess when she came to the podium.

Reifsteck Leaving Podium 6/3/2024

“I think one of the reasons that Ms. Hendrix was so reluctant to speak directly with you,” Reifsteck said, “is because she's seen how first hand you can be real snippy and snarky and insulting to people who come here.”

“My husband was one of those people that you insulted when he spoke,” she said, referring to comments by her husband, Dr. Fred Reifsteck, to the Board on May 13. “So I think that's probably one of the reasons that she hasn't engaged with you at this time.”

Reifsteck then turned her attention to the single page budget summary that the Board has presented to the public and published in the county’s legal organ, The Oconee Enterprise.

Oconee County Schools “budgets are famously tiny,” Reifsteck said. “There's no breakouts, no line items, no details.”

“It's minuscule,” she continued. “It's so general that it's not possible to know what's in it.”

Reifsteck said the slides that Adams used with his presentation are “just the same old slides that you guys flash up there and keep showing, and they're so vague, and they're so nebulous. They don't mean anything.”

Burgess Responds

Burgess turned to Board Vice Chair Amy Parrish when Reifsteck had finished, and asked: “Can I take three minutes and respond to the Board about some things I've heard today and my--at least my--perspective on some of the criticisms I've heard today?”

Burgess Commenting 6/3/2024

Parrish chaired the meeting in the absence of Board Chair Kim Argo. Both Burgess and Argo are stepping down from the Board at the end of their terms in December.

Parrish told Burgess he could speak, but she didn’t hold him to the three minutes, as is the case for citizens who speak, and Burgess actually spoke for four minutes and seven seconds.

“I keep hearing over and over and over that there's no detail in this budget,” Burgess said. “I've been sitting at this table for 11 years and every month of those 11 years, the chief financial officer comes up and makes a presentation on a monthly basis of our budget and our operations.”

Burgess was referring to the Year-To-Date Budget Report given to the Board each month for the budget that already has been passed by the Board.

The Year-To-Date Budget Report “shows all the excruciating detail for every expenditure in the whole a hundred plus million dollar budget,” Burgess said. “And it's done month to month to month. That detail is exactly the level of detail that underlies this one-page summary.”

“Somehow people have gotten the impression that our budget is a one page summary,” Burgess said. “It's not a one page summary. It's a detailed 16-function breakdown that's presented to us every month through from the beginning of the fiscal year to the end of the fiscal year.”

Citizens last year and again this year asked for that detailed budget before the Board voted on the budget, in addition to the one-page summary, but Superintendent Branch and the Board have not released the detailed budget until after it is approved.

“If anybody else really wanted to know,” Burgess continued, “they could probably sit down with our chief financial officer and learn a little bit about that and start paying attention to that monthly budget report that's made.”

Burgess’ Second Point

“The other thing that's been raised is about our debt service,” Burgess said. “And I have--I for one--have been pushing this unassigned or, committed fund balance for debt service for some time now.”

“And we all know what that's for,” he continued. “If you look at the page that's presented to us every month on ELOST VI, it shows the $45 plus million dollars in debt service.” Burgess was referring to the monthly report on the current Education Local Option Sales Tax revenue and spending summary.

“We all know what that's for,” Burgess said of the money set aside in that budget to pay off the debt incurred when bonds were sold for the building projects now nearing completion.

“That amount is an amount necessary to set aside in escrow account to ensure that we'll be able to properly meet those debt service requirements when that program is at its end.”

“I know what it is,” Burgess said of the money set aside. “I'm pretty sure you know what it is,” he added, referring to the other Board members present.

“Anybody else that probably had a 10-minute conversation with our chief financial officer would be able to find out what that's for either.”

“I just find it hard when people come before us after so much detail is presented on a monthly basis and then say to us, we have no detail about what you're doing,” Burgess continued.

“It’s there if you're willing to understand it, learn about it, or have a conversation with our chief financial officer to find out about that,” he said.

“I just, I can't be quiet about that any longer because I find it so separate from the reality that we deal with on a month-to-month, year-to-year basis,” he said.

Appointment of White

White, named chief Operation Officer on Monday, has served OCS as the Chief Technology Officer and the Director of Technology for the past five years, according to the announcement posted on the Oconee County Schools web site on Monday.

He has been an educator since 2008, working as a teacher, coach, and instructional technologist, the release stated.

The appointment of White to the new position has not appeared in any of the personnel reports approved by the Board.

It is normal for the Board to act on and approve Superintendent Branch’s appointments.

For example, on March 4, when Kevin Yancey moved from Oconee County High School Principal to Director of Students Services, Branch recommended the move, and the Board approved it.

After the meeting on Monday, I asked Communications Director Steven Colquitt when the appointment of White to his new position had been approved.

"We don't need Board approval for that,” he responded.


The Board of Education did not record either of the two budget hearings.

I recorded the June 4 hearing from the public seating in the rear of the room, so the pictures of the speakers shown above as they left the podium are the only ones possible showing their faces.

Adams began his brief comments at 00:33 in the video.

Hendrix began her comments at 10:03 in the video.

Reifsteck spoke at 13:27.

Burgess responded to Hendrix and Reifsteck at 16:28 in the video.

Burgess Commenting 6/3/2024
Hendrix Leaving Podium 6/3/2024
Reifsteck Leaving Podium 6/3/2024
Reifsteck Confronting Burgess 6/3/2024
Visible are Branch, Parrish, Burgess,
Michael Ransom (L-R)

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