By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County voters will decide in a few weeks if they want to continue paying a one-cent sales tax for five more years, in order to fund improvements to the county's school facilities.
The question for the special election, on Sept. 15, is should the school system implement a new Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to collect $280.25 million to pay for the repairing of aging buildings, buying school buses, building auxiliary gymnasiums, and purchasing land for future use.
The tax, which would be called SPLOST IV, would be a continuation of SPLOST III, which expires on Dec. 31, said School District Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson. He said an extension of the tax is virtually the only way to pay for the needed renovations.
"The purpose of this SPLOST is to maintain good, quality facilities, where students can receive a quality education," Jackson said. "The majority of our buildings are in good condition, but as they age, they continue to deteriorate."
Absentee voting already is underway, and advance voting is scheduled to begin on Sept. 8, at the Clayton County Board of Elections office. The deadline to register for the special election was Aug. 17.
If continuing the SPLOST is rejected, the school system would have to wait at least a year before the issue could be brought back before voters, Jackson said.
Dana Lemon, the organizer of community volunteers seeking support for a new SPLOST, said she expects to receive flyers and yard signs promoting the initiative today. "We'll be distributing them over the weekend," she said.
According to a description of projects provided to the Clayton News Daily by Jackson, the school system would use the tax money to renovate, modify, and/or purchase equipment for every elementary, middle and high school in the county, as well as the district's North Jonesboro Center, Morrow Annex, WORKTEC, Maintenance Department, athletic stadiums, White Annex, Ash Street Center, Performing Arts Center, and Purchasing and Risk Management facilities.
The money would also be used to buy land for, build and furnish, a grade 6-12 charter school; build a new elementary school in Riverdale; install air conditioning in the gymnasiums at all of the district's schools; build auxiliary gymnasiums at each of the county's nine high schools; purchase new school buses, and acquire computer systems and infrastructure for those systems at every school.
Renovations for aging buildings
According to school system documents, renovation projects would include: installing new ceilings, new lighting, new floor coverings, modernizing bathrooms, adding new lockers, chalkboards and tackboards, replacing doors, repainting facilities, enlarging grease traps in school cafeteria kitchens, renovating sprinkler and fire alarm systems, improving access to water fountains, adding lifts and ramps for handicapped access, and installing updated intercom systems.
The list of schools to get repairs includes all of them, even the newly opened Charles R. Drew High School in Riverdale. "We have to list them all," said Wesley Smith, the coordinating supervisor of construction for the school system. "If we don't list a school, and it ends up needing repairs, then we can't use SPLOST funds to pay for it."
Some of the renovation projects Jackson identified as priorities, include replacing the roof at Fountain Elementary School, which has a persistent water leak, that is causing mold to grow in the ceiling. "Once the roof starts leaking, it's only a matter of time before the mold shows up," Jackson said. Asbestos also would be removed from panels on the exterior of the school, he said.
Jackson said SPLOST IV funds would be used to install air conditioning in the gymnasiums at all 60 of the district's schools. He said auxiliary gymnasiums would also be built at the high schools, because high school athletic departments are having a difficult time juggling the practice schedules for sports, such as wrestling, girls volleyball, and boys and girls basketball.
The Clayton County Performing Arts Center, where the district recently used SPLOST III funds to pay for lobby renovations, would undergo more renovations under SPLOST IV, including carpet replacement in the theaters, repairs to the orchestra lift, and the addition of new office space, concession space, and restroom upgrades.
Land acquisition and school construction
Jackson and Smith said land acquisition is being included, so the district will have a source of revenue to turn to, in case it does come across a piece of property it would like to buy in the next five years. "It's better to buy land before you need it, because once you decide to build a school and need to find land to build it on, the person selling the land is going to raise the price," Jackson said.
The school system would also use SPLOST IV funds to build two new schools, Jackson said. One the district has begun considering is an elementary school next to Charles R. Drew High School. The estimated cost of $16 million. The system already owns the property.
The other need is a facility for the grade 6-12 Elite Scholars Academy Charter School, which is currently housed in the Eula Wilborn Ponds Perry Center for Learning. Jackson said it would cost an estimated $21 million to build. He added that a site has not been identified for the school, but he wants it built in the center of the county.
New school buses
Clayton County Public Schools Director of Transportation John Lyles said his department would use SPLOST IV funds to buy 85 school buses, which can each seat 72 passengers, along with 33 special-needs buses, to replace older buses in the district's fleet.
Clayton owns 523 school buses and the Transportation Department's annual fleet-maintenance budget is $754,000, Lyles said in a written statement. He said the new buses would include several safety features, such as taller seat backs, two stop signs, reinforced cages for fuel tanks, eight-way, overhead halogen lights, rear-door safety latches, and fire suppressant systems for wheelchair buses. He also said the new buses would replace buses that predate current federal and state emissions standards. The "Environmental Protection Division recommends replacing older buses without emissions standards, due to poor air quality," he said. He added that the state government stops providing funding to school systems to pay for the maintenance of buses after they exceed 10 years of age.
A new SPLOST in this economy?
At the same time the school system is seeking a SPLOST, Clayton County residents are facing rising taxes and water rates. On June 29, the Board of Education approved raising its property tax millage rate by 0.164 mills, to the maximum 20 mills allowed under state law. A day later, The Clayton County Board of Commissioners approved a millage rate increase of 3 mills. That means the county's millage rate now stands at 16.453 mills. Earlier this month, the Clayton County Water Authority implemented a rate increase, in which residents who use 4,000 gallons of water, or more, are paying as much as 7 percent more than they have in the past. The increased water rates are in response to higher chemical and energy costs. A week ago, officials from the City of Morrow announced their intention to raise the city's millage rate to 6 mills, a one mill raise from Morrow's current rate.
Jackson said while the current economic climate is not the ideal time to push a SPLOST, the need to maintain the school system's facilities is one reason why voters should support continuing the tax. "The longer you wait to do something, the worse it's going to get," he said. "You pay a little now, or you pay a lot later on."
Jackson also argued that since this is a continuation of a tax that has been in place since SPLOST I began in 1997, Clayton County residents will not be seeing any additional burdens added onto them by approving its renewal. "It's one penny on every dollar you spend when you go shopping," he said. "If people voted against the SPLOST, all you would save is one penny for every dollar."
If the school system did not use a SPLOST to pay for the renovations, the alternative would be a bond referendum, which "will fall solely on the shoulders of Clayton County property owners to pay for," Jackson said.
Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President Yulonda Beauford, said the chamber's board of directors researched where the money funding the tax would come from, and determined that 60 percent to 70 percent of the revenue would come from people who live outside the county. Much of it would come from travelers passing through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, she said.
"That was a huge reason why we decided to support the SPLOST," she said.
In addition to the Chamber of Commerce, SPLOST volunteer organizer Dana Lemon said other groups that have representatives working as volunteers in support of the measure include: the Clayton County Council of PTAs, the Metro South Association of REALTORS, and several local ministers.
Lemon, a Jonesboro resident, who is also the director of W. D. Lemon and Sons Funeral Home in McDonough, said she is also representing the Psi Alpha Omega Alumni Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority on the volunteer group.
"Quality education is something everybody can get behind, regardless of the economy," she said. "We may not be able to get all of the money, but hopefully, before the five years are up, we will see better economic times."