The big issue for school boards across the nation is how to deal with COVID, masks and at-home learning.
Not in Greene County.
Acrimony, animosity and accusations among Greene County educators, that have been churning under the surface for years, erupted Monday, Aug. 30, at a Lake Oconee Academy “State of the School” parents meeting with a barrage of grievances against the Greene County Board of Education.
The Lake Oconee News was not notified about the meeting, but a recording of the almost 90-minute session on the LOA YouTube channel showed four LOA Board of Governors members, including Chairman Mark Lipscomb, and CEO Otho Tucker unloading a point-by-point list of complaints to parents in the school’s gymnasium.
They included allegations that the school board is violating their charter agreement by limiting the number of LOA students that the school board will fund. Last fall, LOA filed suit against the BOE over that issue. There has been no ruling in the case.
At the parents’ meeting, LOA officers railed on about how federal coronavirus support funds are divided and on rebates for money withheld by a statewide pandemic-related austerity cut.
“There’s a lot of money that we think should be paid. With the number of children we have in this school, we’re going to be in the red within the next year or two years, I believe,” LOA Board member and attorney Richard Schmidt told the parents. “And at some point, we’re going to be running out of money and we’re going to have to start cutting staff.”
But it wasn’t just money. LOA leaders complained about how scheduling limits the collaboration between LOA and Greene County High School and said the BOE is not willing to meet, much less negotiate, to resolve the issues.
BOE Chairman Mike Lynch got most of the criticism.
“I was notified that the Greene County Board of Education Chair has no plans to renew the charter of Lake Oconee Academy in 2024,” claimed LOA Board Chair Lipscomb. “I will say in transparency that he has not told me this, but I understand he has started walking that back some.”
In an interview with the Lake Oconee News, Lynch vehemently denied saying that.
“I think LOA is a tremendous asset to this county,” he said. “To think that I would discontinue their charter is just wrong.”
Both LOA and BOE blame each other for not meeting to resolve the issues or refusing to negotiate at meetings.
“It’s a personal issue now,” Lipscomb later told the parents group. “Most of you know there’s a long history between Mike Lynch, Otho Tucker, myself and Steve Kilgore (BOE Vice-Chair). I mean, we have met for three years with zero progress. Always ends up in a blowup.”
Urged on by LOA leaders, parents flooded BOE board members with emails and phone calls.
Budget public hearings usually draw few, if any, people, but about 50 showed up last Tuesday night to hear about the Board of Education’s proposed budget. They peppered School System CFO Dean Ware with questions about how funding is determined for LOA, what money is in the Board of Education budget for LOA and why the school board won’t give LOA money for more students. With no BOE board members in the room, Ware did his best to provide answers but avoided anything relating to issues in the pending lawsuit. Some in the group just wanted school leaders to stop the fighting.
The Lake Oconee News published in this week’s issue a ‘Letter to the Editor’ from Lynch in which he says the public will soon hear the other sides of the story.
“They will show that the GCSS and the BOE have valid reasons for decisions they make and that there is not a bias against LOA that drives their decisions,” Lynch wrote.
In our interview, Lynch addressed the claim that LOA might have to cut staff.
“Why wouldn’t they show us that,” he said. “We’re not going to allow them to lay off teachers if something is causing that. We just don’t know. Talk to us. They just don’t talk to us.”
Superintendent Chris Houston issued a press release calling LOA’s decision to go public with the complaints “irresponsible.”
The four remaining Greene County Board of Education members each responded to a request for comment with emails that basically emphasized how anxious they were to work with LOA to resolve the issues.
LOA is a public charter school within the Greene County School District and receives all of its local, state and federal funding through the Board of Education. The BOE determines each year how many students will be funded.
LOA students score much higher on academic tests than their counterparts in the other Greene County Schools, and each year, hundreds of students apply to be in a lottery to fill a few openings at the charter school.
The district has announced that with few exceptions, county students will not be allowed to transfer to LOA during the school year. The district feels the loss of students to LOA has a negative impact on the morale of students and teachers in other county schools.
“You know the kids that get hurt the most,” Tucker said at the parent's meeting. “The neediest kids are the kids that are getting hurt the most.”
Enrollment funding cap
The big overall complaint and the focus of the lawsuit involves how many students enrolled at LOA will be funded by the BOE.
Tucker says that the current LOA facilities are capable of holding 1,144 students – four classes at each grade level PreK through 12 with 22 in each class.
LOA is limited by the current charter agreement with BOE to 1,051 students until it expires in two years. The school has been gradually increasing the enrollment as students matriculate to the next level and new pre-K children are added.
Here’s where it gets tricky. There is a document created by LOA that forecasts the number of children that would attend each year.
Each year, LOA and the BOE have agreed on higher enrollment numbers than the document indicates, but they disagree about how binding the numbers in the document are since they were not written into the signed charter.
Last year, LOA educated 1,023 students, saying that was required as the current students moved up a grade. But the BOE decided not to increase the enrollment cap at all, leaving it at the previous year’s total of 1,006.
LOA wants the money it believes is owed under a state funding formula and sued the BOE last fall when it became apparent there would be no resolution. This year, the BOE decided to fund 1,013, but Tucker said that with students moving up, LOA had to enroll 1,051.
BOE Chairman Lynch insists he is a strong supporter of LOA.
“I was the one who led the charge several years ago to pay them for more students than was in the agreement,” he said. “The only reason we stopped was this formula started resetting and it gave them a lot more money than anybody thought of. They didn’t need us to pay them for more students. They already had the money to do that.”
But wait, there’s more
The BOE got $10 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. LOA educates about 42 percent of the students in Greene County and is expected $4 million. But, Lynch says, the CARES funding was designed to help disadvantaged children whose education may have suffered during the pandemic. He said only 10 percent of them attend LOA. The BOE plans to give LOA $2 million.
Also, a disagreement over the amount of state funding that is owed LOA after Georgia cut education funding by 10 percent at the start of the pandemic, anticipating a shortfall in state revenue. That did not happen, and the state is refunding six percent. LOA says it has received nothing. The school district says LOA’s budget runs one year behind the state revenue for planning purposes, so the cut and the refund will hit next year.
The BOE is expected to pass this month an FY22 operating budget of over $52 million and cut the millage rate for property taxes. LOA recently approved a $12 million operating budget. Both will get help from federal CARES funding.