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Community takes stock of new SPLOST

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Less than two weeks before the special election on Clayton County Public Schools' proposed Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax extension -- known as SPLOST IV -- some community leaders said they are beginning to take a closer look at the proposal.

Some are already lining up to support it. Others say they are reviewing information, and mulling over it, to see what stance they will take.

The vote is Sept. 15, and will decide the fate of the $280.25 million measure. At issue is whether voters want to extend, for another five years, the one-cent sales tax added on every $1 spent on taxable items in the county. The current tax, SPLOST III, is set to expire on Dec. 31.

Absentee voting for the special election has begun, and advanced voting is scheduled for next Tuesday. The deadline to register to vote was Aug. 17.

The SPLOST money is earmarked for a variety of projects, including renovations at aging schools, the purchase of 118 school buses (including 33 special-needs buses), building auxiliary gymnasiums at the county's nine high schools, building an elementary school in Riverdale, building a facility for the Elite Scholars Academy Charter School, and purchasing land for future use.

The proposed SPLOST IV already has won support from the Clayton County Council of PTAs, the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce and the Metro South Association of REALTORS. Representatives from those groups are working with volunteers to distribute information on the SPLOST.

"We do need the improvements for the children's sake," said Cyd Cox, president of the Clayton County Council of PTAs. "We've got to find a way to do the renovations. We know we've got some older facilities that are in need of repairs, and this is really the only way to pay for them."

David Barton, president-elect of the Metro South Association of REALTORS' executive board, added: "It's not a new tax, it's a tax that's already been in place for a number of years ... But, if we were to lose that source of funding, we wouldn't be able to take care of these facilities the way they should be."

If SPLOST IV is defeated, the school system would have two options. The first is wait at least one year, as required by Georgia law, and ask voters again to approve SPLOST IV. The alternative would be to seek voter approval on a bond referendum.

Barton said a bond referendum would solely be "the burden of the property owners, and it could break the backs of many of them."

Dana Lemon, who is leading the pro-SPLOST supporter camp, said she and other volunteers began distributing pro-SPLOST yard signs and flyers around the county on Monday. She said she had delivered 30 signs as of Tuesday night, but she is not keeping track of how many signs other volunteers have distributed.

"We've been distributing the signs as people have called me to ask for them," Lemon said. "There really hasn't been one area where we've been getting a lot of requests. They've been coming from all over the county."

Another community group, the Clayton County Wide Homeowners Association, has not made a decision whether to support the measure, said Synamon Baldwin, the organization's president and co-founder. She said her group's executive board is getting questions about SPLOST IV. The executive board is scheduled to meet today. she said, to review the proposed SPLOST, and make a decision about where it stands on the issue.

"It's just happening so fast," Baldwin said. "Before you educate the community, you have to educate yourself."

At a time when the national and local economies are struggling, and the electorate facing higher millage rates and water prices in the county, Baldwin said she believes the voters should focus on the students attending Clayton County schools while casting their ballots.

"I personally hope people will think in terms of what's best for the children," Baldwin said. "If that means extending the SPLOST, then that's what they'll do."

Last Friday, Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President Yulonda Beaufort told the Clayton News Daily the chamber determined, through its own research, that 60-70 percent of the money collected from SPLOST IV would come from travelers passing through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. She said that was why the Chamber's board of directors has chosen to support the measure.

Additionally, Beaufort and Barton said improving the quality of the schools in the county could be used as a spur for economic development. "Keeping the schools in top shape, and being able to show schools that are doing well is a marketing tool that can be used to bring in businesses," Barton said.

When contacted recently about SPLOST IV, Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said he had forgotten the school system's current SPLOST was due to expire at the end of this year. He said he was not sure if the local chapter of the NAACP would take a stance on it.

Matthews said the chances of voters supporting the proposed SPLOST IV, however, hinge on what the money will be spent on. "It all depends on how they use the money," he said. "If they use the money for the kids, and to make sure the kids are receiving a quality education, then, I think the community will get behind it."

Matthews said voters will have to ask themselves whether they trust a newly re-constituted Clayton County Board of Education, and a newly installed school system administration, to wisely spend the money when they cast their ballots in the special election.

There was a massive turnover on the school board during last year's accreditation crisis, and the most senior members of the new school board have only been in office for a little over a year. Also, the school system got a new superintendent on July 1, Edmond Heatley.

Matthews said he isn't sure how voters feel about the new school board. "Everybody's got to make their mind up very soon," he said. "Hopefully, they'll [the school board] do the right thing. The community is going through the process of getting to know these people ... It takes longer than six months to get to build trust in a school board, though, so I think the jury is out right now."