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Schools' SPLOST wins 3-to-1 on very low turnout

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County voters overwhelmingly supported a five-year, $280.25 million extension of their school system's Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The meager number of registered voters who turned out for the election, that is.

The special election, for what is being called SPLOST IV, drew just over 2 percent of the county's electorate on Tuesday.

With all but the absentee, advanced voting and provisional ballots counted, the SPLOST extension was approved with 75.35 percent of the ballots cast, and that is a 3-to-1 margin of victory for the one-cent, sales tax.

However, only 3,129 ballots were cast ion Tuesday, out of 144,593 registered voters. That is a turnout of just 2.1 percent, which is lower than the 6.4 percent turnout for a special election last year to fill a vacancy in the school board's District 6 seat. That election was not county-wide. It only involved the voters in a single school board district.

"I'm going to go ahead and say, I think we had a victorious campaign," School System Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson said as the ballots from the last precincts were counted. "The people have spoken. They do want to continue to have good, quality education in Clayton County."

The voters' approval of SPLOST IV means Clayton County Public Schools will have funding to do a variety of projects, including: the renovations of several schools; building nine auxiliary gymnasiums for the county's high schools; purchasing new school buses, and building a replacement facility for Riverdale Elementary School.

"Being that I'm new to the county, I didn't know what to expect," said Clayton Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley. "I was just hoping to get a majority of the votes cast. But, 75 percent approval is a vote of support for the school district, the students, the school board, the administrators and the teachers of Clayton County. I'm just ecstatic about the results."

As soon as the results began to be posted, the SPLOST had overwhelming support. The lead continued to grow as ballots from more and more precincts were counted.

"I voted, 'Yes,' because I think our county needs some improvement," Jonesboro voter, Carolyn Fox, said. "I think a vote, 'Yes,' is a vote for our county."

Another Jonesboro voter, Kay Howerton, said she voted against the SPLOST extension, because "I don't ever vote for a tax."

Clayton County Board of Elections and Registration Director Annie Bright said Tuesday's low voter turnout was "expected of a special election." And several poll managers said many of the voters who did cast ballots at their precincts on Tuesday told them they did not know there was an election, until they heard about it from someone else or saw a sign - on the day of the election.

"Everybody said they didn't know the election was taking place," said Nancy Paulus, poll manager at the Jackson Elementary School voting location. Paulus said her precinct had a turnout of 52 people - out of 2,137 registered voters.

By 6 p.m., 125 people had voted at the M.D. Roberts Middle School polling location, said Poll Manager Neil Lawson. There are 2,150 registered voters in that precinct, Lawson said.

"We've had no pushes where a lot of voters came at one time," Lawson said. "The biggest bunch we've probably had show up at one time was four people."

Bobbye Finney, poll manager for the voting location at the Clayton County Library System's headquarters branch in Jonesboro, said there had been a total of 26 people who voted at her polling station as of 6:40 p.m. "I believe half the people came to the library for some other reason, and just saw the signs when they got here," Finney said.

Lawson said a lot of voters who came to his precinct said they found out about the special election through word of mouth. Jonesboro resident, Mary "Bud" Cooper, and her husband, Bill, came to the polling location at M.D. Roberts Middle School late Tuesday after hearing about the election from a daughter-in-law.

"I try to follow all of the news in the county, but I didn't know about this election," Mary Cooper said. "It's just a shame it wasn't advertised very well."

But, Superintendent Edmond Heatley said the success of the SPLOST issue was due to the work of a group of community volunteers whose job it was to raise awareness of the special election, and build community support for SPLOST IV.

Dana Lemon, who led the pro-SPLOST community volunteer group, said the group did the best it could to raise awareness about the special election with the funding it had. She declined to specify how much money the volunteer group had raised to publicize the event.

"Because it's an off-season, special election, it's not something people were accustomed to," Lemon said. "That was really the reason why the turnout was so low. Not as many people probably would have known about the election, if we had not done this campaign ...

"If we had a million dollars to do our campaign, I would have liked to reach everyone in the county," she added. "Our strategy was to reach as many people as we could with the limited amount of funds that we had."