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Clayton BOE turns down stimulus funding

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

In a 9-0 vote Monday, the Clayton County Board of Education turned down the school system's $13.79 million share of the federal government's economic stimulus package, because the district does not have the funds to repay the money.

Accepting the Qualified School Construction Bonds allocation -- which is essentially a no-interest loan to the school district -- would mean the system would have to go into debt. Clayton Schools did not include a provision in 2004's Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST III) to account for such a situation, and does not have the money elsewhere to pay off the bonds, according to Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson.

The school system has not been in debt since 1997, Jackson said. "Had we had the ability to incur debt, we could have used these bonds, but our current SPLOST does not allow us to do that," he told the school board members.

The bonds were included in President Barack Obama's stimulus plan to help school systems pay for construction projects. The taxable bonds, which were approved for the nation's 100 largest school systems, are to be sold to investors with a U.S. Treasury-set maximum maturity period of 16 years, Jackson said.

While the bonds do not collect interest, the school system would still have to repay the investors who purchased those bonds at the end of the maturity period, he said.

The stimulus plan included a total of $145.15 million in no-interest school construction bonds that was allocated to seven Georgia school systems, including Clayton County. Since Clayton turned down its share, that money will be given to the state government for distribution to other school systems, most of which are in metropolitan Atlanta, Jackson said.

"There are some people in the community who are opposed to us going into debt," Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley said. "Obviously, we would like to do that [accept the bonds], but at the same time, we would have to go into debt to take advantage of it."

Schoolboard Chairperson Alieka Anderson said the decision to turn down the construction bonds was the result of both desire and necessity on the board's part. "We wanted to make it [decision], and we had to make it," Anderson said. "We want to make sure we keep money in the district."

On June 15, school officials asked the school board to approve a five-year, $100 million bond proposal, along with a proposed $280.25 million SPLOST IV, so the district could handle such debts.

The board rejected the bond proposal back then, however, citing a desire to not incur debt.

Clayton County voters will go to the polls today to approve, or reject, the proposed SPLOST IV, which would be an extension of the tax set under previous SPLOSTS. Part of the money from that proposed SPLOST is scheduled to be used on two school construction projects.

One project is a proposed, $21 million facility for the Elite Scholars Academy Charter School. The other is a replacement for Riverdale Elementary School that will cost $16 million to build. The district will get $12 million for that project from SPLOST III. The remaining $4 million will have to come from the proposed SPLOST IV - if voters approve it.

"We would have the money to build that school, if we could use those bonds," Jackson said.