Athens-Clarke and Oconee County, Georgia are neighbors, but they’ve been growing along two different paths ever since the University of Georgia was founded in the late 18th century. We take a look at their history, land area, population, economic growth and school systems to get a better idea by how much they differ.
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In 1784, Franklin county became Georgia’s 8th official county, encompassing a huge amount of territory. But part of it was claimed by South Carolina and large piece was broken off in 1796 to become Jackson county. In 1801, the Georgia Assembly decided to grant some land to the newly established Franklin College in southeast Jackson, thereby creating Clarke county. A town started growing up around Franklin college, which was called Athens.
This funky little town kept growing as more colleges were founded and joined with Franklin college to become a university. At this point, Athens was outgrowing even the Clarke county seat which was in Watkinsville at that time. In 1872, the seat was officially moved to Athens to reflect its growing importance. But that left the people of Watkinsville a little bitter, so they petitioned the state for their own county, which they got in 1875. They named this new county Oconee, for the river along which the new border was drawn. This left Clarke a pitifully small land area, the smallest in Georgia, and as Athens kept growing, it wasn’t hard to eventually take over the whole county, and that was formalized by unification in 1991.
That leaves us with two counties who are neighbors, but who have been growing along two different paths ever since the University of Georgia was founded. So how big have these differences become, two hundred years later? Let’s take a look!
This is – Athens and Oconee county: Compared!
The average county nationwide takes up a bit over 11 hundred square miles. In Georgia, we pack them in a little tighter at 362 square miles on average. By these standards, Athens-Clarke is a lightweight, clocking in at only 116. Oconee is bigger but is still fairly small at 184 square miles. Even if the two were added back together, a re-unified Clarke would still be below average for a Georgia county.
But Athens packs a lot into a small package! As of 2010, Athens had 992 people per square mile, making ACC over 5 times denser than the mostly rural Oconee. Athens has been growing at a faster rate as well. The whole county of Oconee isn’t up quite yet to the population that just the city of Athens had before unification. Now a quick peek at the demographics. As we all know, Oconee has more people of the white variety and Athens has more black people – about five times the percentage – and Athens also has twice the percentage of Latinx people.
Incomes are another big point of difference between the two counties. Athens has a five-year poverty estimate at 34%, much higher than the Georgia average of 14%. Oconee? Let’s just say they’re…. doing alright down there. Their median household income is over $77 thousand dollars.
All of these stats tend to correlate with differences in political opinion as well. Athens votes for Democratic presidents at more than double the rate of Oconee, but Oconee consistently beats Athens in turnout.
Moving on to economic growth! I’ve often heard from people concerned about Athens businesses moving to Oconee. This is definitely happening in some areas of town, but as a whole, which county is actually growing faster? Before we see the numbers, let’s find out what they’re saying on the street.
APN: “Do you think that businesses are growing faster in Oconee county or in Athens?”
Person on the Street #1: “I really don’t know about that.”
Person on the Street #2: “Probably Athens.”
Person on the Street #3: “I say probably Oconee, with the new Epps Bridge Parkway and everything.”
Person on the Street #4: “I’m not sure they’re growing at all, I think they’re shrinking actually.”
Person on the Street #5: “For sure Athens.”
Person on the Street #6: “UGA – Athens, but it’s gonna be higher on rent, so Oconee outskirt, just to be on the safe side.”
Seems about even. If you look at sales tax collection, Athens seems to maybe be growing a hair faster than Oconee. Hmm… is that right? Computer, adjust for inflation. Seems about even now I think… um… Normalize to 100% and zoom in. There it is. This may be the reason why some people think Oconee is growing faster – it is, as a percentage of their total. Oconee fell further in the recession, relatively-speaking, and grew quicker in the recovery. Being from Athens, that doesn’t bother me because Athens’ economy is so much bigger overall.
Well let’s move on, because it’s time to talk about education! Hey, people on the street, I want to know, which county has the better school system, do you think?
Person on the Street #1: “I think they’re better in Oconee.”
Person on the Street #2: “I think the schools in Oconee are better.”
Person on the Street #3: “I really don’t know.”
Person on the Street #4: “I’m not sure, I don’t have kids here.”
Person on the Street #5: “Oconee.”
Person on the Street #6: “I would have to say Oconee.”
So that was unanimous. But what do the facts say? Well, the first thing we should find out are what kinds of students are going into each school system?
People of color make up 80% of Athens-Clarke county students as opposed to only about 20% in Oconee. That’s a big difference. 46% of Athens-Clarke students are economically disadvantaged compared to only about 9% in Oconee. Already we can tell that the kids in Clarke probably have some challenges that they just don’t have to deal with in Oconee. Do you think going hungry or not getting as much help from your parents might lead to lower test scores? Yeah. Yeah it does. It turns out that academic achievement is very correlated to income. This is not the fault of any one teacher, or school or even school system. But, this is a comparison video, so let’s take a look at our kids’ reading levels.
Oconee kids start with a big edge over their Athens-Clarke counterparts, and that advantage is maintained as they get older.
That’s true even though we spend thousands more per student every year here in Athens than they do in Oconee. Our graduation rate is worse, and our college enrollment rate is even worse-er. Overall, Athens-Clarke gets a D from the state government, whereas Oconee gets a solid B.
Does this mean we have bad schools in Clarke county?
LaKeisha Gantt: “I don’t think that our Clarke county schools are bad. I would never use that term to describe our schools.”
APN: “LaKeisha Gantt, President of the Clarke County School Board, so glad you could join us!”
LaKeisha Gantt: “So I want to be clear that I’m not speaking on behalf of Clarke County School Board.”
APN: “Okay, you’re just speaking for yourself, I understand. How do you think parents should use these assessments from the state government in deciding where their children should go to school?”
LaKeisha Gantt: “As parents, typically we want to do what’s right for our child. As with anything, we know assessments are, they are limited. And so, I would encourage parents to look at a variety of different things, like go into our schools, talk to our teachers, speak with our principals, speak with the, you know, thousands of people that have their children here. So, gather as much information as you can to make a more informed decision about where to place your child.
If we’re only making decisions based on like, what my friends told me, or what I’ve seen based on, like state ratings, or what I see in the media, or based on my fears, then ultimately, you know, it actually just reinforces that narrative.
You know, the key question is what am I moving from, like what am I looking for? And what am I afraid will happen if I send my child here? Right? Because we know that students who have, who generally have support from home, earlier interventions, access to resources – those students tend to do well regardless. So what exactly are people running towards, and away from? I think sometimes these state scores, they serve as a way to lessen cognitive dissonance for parents who make the decision to send their kids elsewhere.”