Sales tax lagging behind projections

By Greg Gelpi

A sluggish economy has slowed collection of a special school tax by $18.8 million but current and pending construction projects should not suffer, officials say.

The five-year, one-cent, $263 million special purpose local option sales tax went into effect in December 1999. It is designated to pay for renovations to all of the system's 49 schools and the construction of seven new schools.

But despite falling millions short of projected collections, construction remains on track, said Lee Davis, the chief financial officer of Clayton County schools.

"Unless the economy does something really, really miraculous, we're not going to meet projections," he said. "I still think we'll be able to do all of the projects."

This will be possible, according to Davis, because construction companies have suffered as a result of the sluggish economy as well, forcing them to lower prices. The lower prices have benefited the school system, which has been able to complete construction projects at lower costs than originally budgeted.

In its first year, SPLOST collections were about $1 million over projections as the economy boomed, but collections have plummeted in the last two years, Davis said.

"You keep hearing that the economy is recovering, but that has yet to be reflected in our taxes," Davis said.

The school system chose to build as it collected money. But if the tax expires in December 2004 without all of the projects completed, it will be up to the Clayton County Board of Education to prioritize the remaining projects and decide which ones will be completed and which ones will not, said John Ramage, Clayton County Public Schools assistant superintendent of facilities, construction and purchasing.

Funding for the remaining projects would come from either another SPLOST that voters would have to approve or sales of bonds. However, Ramage didn't see it coming to this.

"We anticipate being able to do everything we said we would do with SPLOST," he said.

The building and renovation funded by SPLOST is designed to counter the swelling student population. About 1,400 students join the school system each year, Ramage said, and this year's population of about 52,000 will grow to about 57,600 by the 2007-08 school year.

With the construction of two elementary and two middle schools this year, about 200 classrooms will be added, but 520 temporary buildings are serving as classrooms, leaving 320 classrooms that need to be built. Thirteen schools would be needed to replace the temporary buildings, according to Ramage.

But, even if the school system had the money to build the 13 schools, it would cost about $1 million to keep each school operating for a year, he added. SPLOST is able to fund the construction of three or four schools each year, but doesn't cover operating costs.

"If it doesn't get renewed, we'll just have more trailers and more trailers and more trailers," Ramage said. "We get some state funding, but not enough to keep up with the growth."

The school system's first SPLOST, a three-year tax, expired six months early since it had met its projected goals at that time.