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Voters rally behind school referendum
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Newton County School System administrators, members of the Board of Education and members of Newton Citizens for Excellent Schools smiled with elation as county Board of Elections officials announced the Sept. 18 referendum had passed with an overwhelming majority.

The school system needed both items - the continuation of the penny sales tax and the issuance of general obligation bonds - to pass in order to build the five new schools needed for projected student enrollment of more than 25,000 by 2013.

Members of Newton Citizens for Excellent Schools organized a campaign through the schools to garner "yes" votes from parents and extended families of students and teachers as well as community-minded residents.

NCES Co-chair Sam B. Hay III congratulated everyone who campaigned as well as the staff of NCSS central office for the countless hours they spent preparing for the referendum vote.

"I'd like to think of today not as 'whew, we got it done,' but rather as a new beginning," Hay said.

Porterdale Elementary School Principal Lizzella Dodson drove to American Legion Post 32 to vote during her lunch break.

"It's going to definitely help all the kids in the county," Dodson said. "There won't be as much overcrowding because of the new schools and it's not just a benefit for today, but for the future too."

 She said eliminating trailer classrooms provides students with a safer environment to go to class in, therefore increasing their learning potential.

On Tuesday's ballot a total of 2,492 people voted on the Special Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) and 2,535 voted on the GO bond item in the county's 20 precincts. The referendum items passed with an 86 percent victory.

Board of Elections Superintendent Donna Morrison reported 126 people participated in early and absentee voting.

Ruby Crawley voted yes on the two referendum items Tuesday. She cited the importance of well maintained schools, which meet student needs, as her reason for voting yes twice.

"I try to vote every time on things like this," Crawley said. "I'm 83 years old, and I'm going to continue to as long as I'm able."

The Rev. Herman Hegwood also voted yes twice.

"They're going to have to have new buildings and they're not raising our taxes any, so why not let them have it," Hegwood said.

The current SPLOST (SPLOST II) was approved by voters in 2003 and expires on Dec. 31, 2009, and will largely fund the construction of a new elementary and new middle school on Salem Road before its expiration.

With the approval of SPLOST III, the penny sales tax will extend 60 months past the expiration of SPLOST II (until 2014) or until a set revenue amount of $95 million is reached. System officials need SPLOST III to generate $61 million for planned building projects.

Voters also chose to continue the one-mill debt service on the issuance of general obligation bonds until 2025.

With approximately $49 million from GO bonds, SPLOST revenue and state-allotted funds the system plans to construct three new elementary schools, a new middle school, a new high school, an addition to Alcovy High, a band/ROTC addition to Eastside High, complete renovations on existing schools, improve technology throughout the system, purchase new buses and maintain those on the current fleet and reduce indebtedness from the previous use of GO bonds.

"We have a big responsibility, but we can do it," said Timothy K. Adams, co-chair of Newton Citizens for Excellent Schools. "We have the students, we have the teachers and we will have buildings you can teach in and rooms the students can go in - we pray trailers will be no more."

Superintendent Steven Whatley was delighted at the final tally of votes and said the two items needed to pass in order to alleviate overcrowded schools, prevent purchase of more trailer classrooms, continue the lottery pre-K program, maintain the current property tax millage rate and avert instituting double sessions.

"We're appreciative of the response of the voters in support of the referendum," Whatley said. "The task now ahead of us is a great challenge. We realize this is just one of our many areas of responsibility in providing a quality education to the students of Newton County, but it is an important one to be able to house them in appropriate classrooms with top notch technology for the best instruction possible."