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Residents discuss education, growth and tax dollars
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 Members of Newton Citizens for Excellent Schools hosted an informational meeting for county business leaders and education advocates Thursday night regarding the Sept. 18 referendum dealing with funding new school construction costs.

NCES co-chairs T.K. Adams and Sam B. Hay III explained the referendum agenda the school system has approved was a proactive measure needed for the county's growing population.

Adams, a retired educator, remembers when the county had only one high school, two middle schools and four elementary schools. The county now boasts 20 schools.

"Our community continues to grow," Adams said, "and with growth comes families with lots of children."

Hay said county residents should not look at this growth as an impossible challenge, but rather should ready itself to ensure a prosperous future.

The Newton County Board of Education has suggested two items to foot the bill of building new schools in the district, which local voters must approve.

NCSS Superintendent Steven Whatley said the first item would be to extend the one-cent special purpose local option sales tax until 2014, and the second to continue the one mil debt service on the issuance of general obligation bonds until 2025.

"The good thing about these referendum items is both of them are no new taxes," Whatley said. "They are continuations."

The BOE has outlined a five-year facilities plan to build four new elementary schools, two middle schools, additional instruction space at Alcovy High, a band/ROTC facility at Eastside High, a fourth high school, a stadium and a multitude of other repairs, upgrades and renovations to existing schools.

The board estimates the cost of the construction projects to total $169.5 million. Since the state will provide $53 million based on the county's estimated enrollment, two-thirds of the cost will have to come from local sources.

Some of the $169.5 million would also go toward the purchase of buses and upgrading technology.

The one-cent SPLOST is expected to generate $66 million, general obligation bonds $48 million with $2.5 million in interest over the next five years.

Whatley explained to the attendees how the county's total population grew 5.7 percent between 2005 and 2006, while school enrollment increased 7.5 percent in that time.

Newton County is the fourth fastest growing county in the state, the 11th in the nation and the second fastest growing large school system in Georgia.

School administrators expect the district to add 6,000 new students in the next five years - causing enrollment to soar to more than 25,000 students.

"Regardless of your attitude toward growth," Whatley said, "students are coming."

"If we have 6,500 more kids, they've got to get to school somehow," Whatley said. "Many of our students ride the bus."

Whatley said the BOE chose to extend SPLOST for a third time and the one mil debt service on general obligation bonds because they allow schools to be built more quickly than a pay-as-you-go method, do not increase taxes and expire after so many months.
He said if both items did not pass it could result in overcrowded schools, more trailer classrooms, possible elimination of the lottery Pre-k program and increases in property taxes or double sessions.

The system already houses students in 154 trailers designated for instructional space. Fairview Elementary has 18 trailer classrooms - the most in the county.

Whatley said he could not tell those in attendance to vote yes on both items, but could only provide information about what the county's needs are and what could happen if they are not met.

"I urge you to get informed about this and get the word out," Whatley said.

Bond underwriter Bryce Holcomb explained how schools should go about campaigning for the referendum. The creation of a Newton Citizens for Excellent Schools' site-action committee, headed by a team leader at each school, is what he suggested.

"Quite simply, a team leader's responsibility is to go out and recruit five unit workers and help them secure 10 'yes' votes," Holcomb said.

He explained how Newton County has 44,843 registered voters and if 20 percent of them voted, 5,380 votes would be needed to ensure a 60-percent victory margin for the two items.

Ideally, Holcomb said each school would be responsible for securing a certain percentage of the vote based on their enrollment numbers - the highest number at Newton with 2,004 votes and the lowest at Sharp with 241 votes.

"Obviously, you want to work with the people who know you best and trust you most," Holcomb said.

School, community and civic organizations who would like to schedule an informational presentation relative to the school system building program and improvement projects that are proposed to be funded from these referenda should contact Cathy Allen at (770) 784-4903.