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Frustrations over SPLOST, school board highlighted

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

About 40 Clayton residents, and a handful of elected officials, gathered in the chapel of Riverdale First United Methodist Church to express their growing frustration with the county's proposed 2008 Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) and school system accreditation issues.

The Clayton County Branch of the NAACP led a Town Hall meeting at the church on Friday night. The chapel, normally a place to pray, became a place to vent.

"We gave them $240 million and they have not spent it wisely," said Clayton County NAACP President Dexter Matthews, expressing frustration over the 2003 SPLOST. The local NAACP has openly opposed the proposed 2008 SPLOST, citing the county's sluggish pace in delivering all of the six recreation centers it promised during the campaign for the 2003 SPLOST.

To illustrate their point, the NAACP passed out materials from the 2003 SPLOST campaign, noting which promises were unfulfilled.

The NAACP also distributed copies of a Wachovia bank statement, which showed that as of Dec. 31, 2007 -- four years after the county began collecting SPLOST funds -- nearly $118 million of that money was still sitting in the bank.

"[The Board of Commissioners] have only spent $80 million in four years," said Matthews. "Right now, they have not given us anything ... they just want us to trust them."

The county will hold a referendum for a new, six-year, $305 million SPLOST on Feb. 5. The BOC hopes to use the money collected to build a new Juvenile Justice Center, three additional police precincts, two additional libraries, a multi-purpose training center for the Clayton County Fire Department, and other public safety improvements.

NAACP officials said the improvements the county is seeking can be paid for through the normal budgeting process, and that not supporting a 2008 SPLOST would be a wake-up call to the BOC.

Several elected officials, however, said the new SPLOST is vitally necessary.

"There are roads and bridges that need to be fixed," said Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt. "There are a lot more things that need to be done [other] than building the recreation centers."

Oswalt added that SPLOST funds would be needed to help pay for $28 million worth of infrastructure improvements, which the Department of Homeland Security has demanded of the county.

Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin shared a story of a recently arrested 10 -year-old, who was dragged past his office in handcuffs while being processed. He said a Juvenile Justice Center was needed to ensure the confidentiality of minors entangled in the justice system.

"I weigh the odds on both sides," however, "voting against the SPLOST is voting against the Juvenile Justice Center," said Baskin.

"This is important," said John Johnson, director of Clayton County Juvenile Court. "The deadline [for the 2003 SPLOST] has not passed, yet, and they should give [the BOC] a chance to do what they said they are going to do."

One resident questioned whether there has been a lack of communication between the NAACP and the BOC, but one NAACP official said "we have been trying to meet with the commissioners for years."

Citizens also expressed particular outrage with the problems facing the school system. Those who spoke said egos and personal agendas of certain school board members are putting the county's children at risk of not being able to attend college or qualify for HOPE scholarships.

"We're making a history of incompetence," said Roc Frasier, outreach minister of Second Baptist Church in Forest Park. "If you are on the school board, my child should be at the paramount of your concern. I am sick and tired of what is going on."

"I'm paying all this money to the school system, and I'm not happy with my investment," said Bob Hartley, president of Concerned Citizens of District 9, a group which has sought to remove District 9 board member Sandra Scott through a recall. "This is the business of our children ... we can no longer afford to be passive."

Recently, a group of 25 citizens and members of the school board approached the Clayton County legislative delegation, asking its members to pass legislation to create an ethics commission in hopes of deterring future investigations by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is currently looking into accusations of micromanagement, misuse of funds and other potential violations of standards by Clayton's school board and school system. The investigation is the second in five years by SACS.

Mark Elgart, president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, told the Clayton News-Daily on Jan. 18 that an ethics commission would help by providing "a vehicle,[so that] if that ethics violation occurred, there would be a way to deal with it," but would not necessarily prevent SACS from taking away the county's accreditation.

State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale) said an ethics commission would not solve the school board's current situation, and urged more communication from the school board.

"I have a problem passing legislation when the school system won't talk to us," said Abdul-Salaam. "For us to pass legislation, we need to know the facts. Until I get the facts ... I won't be passing any legislation."

No members of the BOC or the school board spoke during the meeting.