Fulton, DeKalb Voters to Consider School Sales Tax Renewal

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(APN) ATLANTA — In upcoming the November 08, 2011, election, Atlanta, Decatur, DeKalb, and Fulton voters will decide whether to renew a one percent, or one penny per dollar, sales tax for educational infrastructure.  If approved, this would be the third renewal, or Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) IV.

Working families are hurting in the current economy, and Atlanta’s sales tax of eight cents is already relatively high for the nation.  

The November SPLOST IV vote is important because over the next year and a half, Atlanta voters will decide whether to renew two of those eight pennies–the education penny this November, and the water treatment penny in March 2012–and will also decide on whether to self-impose a ninth penny for transportation in July 2012.

Yet, there hasn’t been too much public discussion about SPLOST IV, either from APS or in the media.

In part, that is because APS is legally prohibited from lobbying for SPLOST, APS Board of Education Chairwoman Brenda Muhammad told Atlanta Progressive News, noting they were still allowed to explain the benefits.

In previous years, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce took the lead in advocating for the SPLOST.  Given the recent criticisms of the Chamber’s involvement in shaping the Board through its EDUPAC group, it is understandable they would be less vocal this time.

SPLOST IV, if approved by voters, would fund several years of Capital Projects involving Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County Public Schools, Decatur Public Schools, and DeKalb County Public Schools, from FY 2013 to 2018.

Atlanta would receive a portion of the money, currently projected to be 499 million dollars, although, given the current economy, that projection may be on the higher side of what can be reasonably expected.

Former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall told the Board in March 2011 that the sales tax revenue projection at that time was only 364 million.

However, the school system is relying on the higher estimate in case the revenues are higher, Jere Smith, APS Director of Capital Improvements, told APN.

SPLOST III funded some 469 million dollars worth of projects just for APS from FY 2007 to 2012, including 377 million for construction and renovation.

SPLOST II funded some 460 million dollars worth of projects for APS from FY 2002 to 2007, including 417 million for construction and renovation.

SPLOST I funded some 461 million dollars worth of projects for APS from FY 1997 to 2002, including 322 million for construction and renovation.

Atlanta’s total of all three SPLOSTs for educational capital improvements to date is 1.117 billion dollars, just for construction and renovation.  Dekalb, Decatur, and Fulton school systems get their own allocations.

It took APN about three weeks to collect and analyze this information, including some documents obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act; APS did not have a pamphlet prepared.

APS’s most recent document breaking down the SPLOST IV projects, dated May 20, 2011, has a 520 million dollar budget.  It is not immediately clear what would be cut given the current generous estimate of 499 million, Smith said.

The SPLOST IV budget includes 270 million for construction and renovation of schools; the remaining budget includes various other upgrades.

It includes three new schools: Midtown Middle (30 million dollars), North Atlanta Elementary (16 million dollars), and North Atlanta High.  

North Atlanta High’s improvements have already been paid from proceeds of the Certificates of Participation (COPS).  However, APS’s SPLOST IV budget includes payments of 6.5 million dollars per year for five years to retire COPS debt for the project, totaling 32.5 million dollars.

According to a poll commissioned by Blogging While Blue, a blog run by former Mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin, from June 01 through 05, 2011, voters are supportive of renewing the tax.

64 percent of a sample of voters polled were in favor of SPLOST IV, 32 percent were opposed, and 4 percent were unsure.

Mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed did not support the renewal of SPLOST IV, and told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper in February 2011 that he would have preferred APS to forgo renewal of SPLOST IV so that voters would be more inclined to support the Regional Transportation SPLOST which will be on the ballot in July 2012.

Mayor Reed said he would have hoped for APS to scale down their request from one cent to two-tenths of one cent, which Reed said would have been enough, but apparently APS was not moved by that suggestion.

Reed’s primary interest in the T-SPLOST, as previously reported by APN, is funding for the Atlanta Beltline.  Apparently, Reed was willing to put the Beltline before Atlanta’s schools.

According to one source, former APS Board Chairman Khaatim El’s support for SPLOST IV was one of the causes of the rift between El and Reed.

Alternatively, Dwanda Farmer, a candidate for the BOE District 2 Special Election, said she supports the education penny but not the T-SPLOST.

In March 2011, APS had to repay 48 million dollars back to Fulton County related to SPLOST III, due to an error by Fulton County in calculating the number of Atlanta residents.  

In an APS Powerpoint presentation, Chuck Burbridge, APS Chief Financial Officer, presented various options to raise the funding it needs for its current capital improvement wish list.

Either APS had to ask for the voters to approve SPLOST IV; reallocate 25 percent of its current operations budget for capital improvements; “raise property tax millage rate to pre-SPLOST rate (District millage equaled 26.95 in 1996, an increase of 5.31 mils);” or drop the project list.

“Would you rather have people give one penny, or take that money out of direct services for children?” Muhammad asked APN.  “I’m not one for asking people for any additional millage to pay any additional [property] taxes.”

But one APS parent, Allison Adair, said the SPLOST is supposed to be a temporary funding source.  “Fifteen years is enough,” she said, adding that APS is now relying on SPLOST as a general funding mechanism, including for upkeep of existing buildings which will always be necessary.

“At some point we have to find a way of doing it, though.  It’s always gonna be needed.  If you don’t do this, we have to do something,” Muhammad said.

If voters don’t approve SPLOST IV, “we would be up a creek,” Muhammad said.  “I’m sure a millage rate would be something that’s discussed, but who would be in favor of that with the economic challenges?”

“We’ve got to certainly look at some alternatives, I believe in Plan B,” she said.

Other APS SPLOST IV projects include renovation and addition projects such as renovation and a new gym at Beecher Hills Elementary (9 million), renovation at Boyd Elementary (10.6 million), classroom and multi-purpose room additions at Brandon Primary Center (7.1 million), renovation and classroom additions at Bunche Middle (18.3 million), renovation and multi-purpose room at Capitol View Elementary (11.4 million), renovation at Fain Elementary (6 million), a gymnasium addition at Forest Hill Academy (3.2 million), a renovation at Gideons Elementary (10 million), classroom and multi-purpose room additions at Grove Park Elementary (2.4 million), a renovation at Humphries Elementary (9.6 million), a renovation at Hutchinson Elementary (8.3 million), a pool renovation at Kennedy Middle (3 million), renovation at Kimberly Elementary (8.9 million), a pool renovation at M.L. King Middle (2 million), renovation and classroom additions at Mary Lin Elementary (12.1 million), improvements at the former Blalock Elementary School site (5 million), renovation at Parks Middle (9.4 million), renovation and classroom addition at Rivers Elemetary (14.7 million), a parking lot and multi-purpose room at Springdale Park Elementary (4 million), renovations at DH Stanton Elementary (8.6 million), renovations and additions at Sylvan Middle (21 million), site improvements at Toomer Elementary (2 million), renovations and classroom additions at Venetian Hills Elemetary (12 million), a parking lot and multi-purpose room at West Manor Elementary (5 million), renovation at Woodson Elementary (12.2 million), and renovations and additions at the WPBA Facility (8.2 million).

Renovations at Maynard Jackson High will be funded with reallocated funds from SPLOST III.

(END/2011)

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