Newton County residents must soon decide whether to support or oppose renewing a special 1 percent sales tax, known as education SPLOST, which is used annually to help boost the Newton County School System’s budget by paying for special projects.
Early voting is already taking place until Friday with the final vote on dedicated sales tax set for Tuesday, March 19.
Residents have attended forums and meetings asking questions and voicing their concerns about the education SPLOST. Though some questions have been answered, others remain unclear. The News has taken several questions and comments heard at forums and meetings and directed them to the Newton County School System’s Superintendent Gary Mathews. Mathews and other school officials took the time to answer those questions.
Mathews listed the following as what SPLOST IV proceeds would help accomplish:
What will money from the education SPLOST help fund?
• Debt service tax relief, $30 million
• School technology: computers and printers, infrastructure upgrades, interactive equipment and software for all schools, $17 million
• School maintenance: system-wide roofing, paving, electrical upgrades and HVAC renovations, $11.3 million
• Student transportation: approximately 75 buses and other bus maintenance equipment, $9.6 million
• School security: purchase of ViewPath S.A.F.E. camera, audio and silent alarm system for every school, $3.85 million
Why wasn’t the education SPLOST voted on during the November 2012
“As the system had not yet fully analyzed its needs in time for last November’s election, we are now ready for a March election,” Mathews said. “Should the SPLOST fail, the system can have another election related to SPLOST in November of 2014.”
Can the education SPLOST fund teacher salaries?
Mathews said the education SPLOST can only be used for capital expenditures. The Newton County School System cannot use proceeds from the education SPLOST to fund salaries, textbooks, utilities or any other operating expenses such as these. The SPLOST IV referendum, if passed by the voters, will be paid by both county residents and non-residents or visitors to the county who spend money on goods and services here in Newton County.
Where will additional funding come from for projects if the education SPLOST fails?
Mathews said if the education SPLOST ultimately fails, in March 2013 and November 2014, capital projects will then have to be funded out of the school system’s general fund, which is what funds positions, textbooks and supplies.
“Given that the tax assessor is now telling our business office that we can anticipate a 6 to 7 percent loss in the tax digest for the coming 2013-14 school year, a failed SPLOST will result in very negative consequences for the public schools as cuts are already on the horizon going into the 2014-15 school year,” Mathews said.
The tax digest is the value of all land, buildings and motor vehicles in the county and the taxes paid on these items are what fund the majority of both county government and the school system. Land and home values have continued to decline since the housing collapse leading to lower tax revenues for the school system despite raising the property tax rate.
“Unless a substantial pick up in the economy occurs in the county. SPLOST funding, a sales tax paid by those in and out of the county, is key to a better financial future for the schools not only in the long-term, but obviously as soon as the 2014-15 budget year, i.e., an already strained general fund will be strained even further if capital projects have to come out of the general fund which provides positions and textbooks and supplies,” Mathews said.
“A SPLOST failure will inevitably impact the education of school children if budget reductions going into the 2014-15 school year reach into classroom ranks and support for instruction.”
How has the school system’s budget decreased?
Mathews said that since 2006 the state’s funding formula for public schools has short changed the NCSS by approximately $53 million, resulting in several million dollars of budget reductions.
“During my first few months in NCSS (in 2010), we were busy identifying approximately $8.2 million in cuts. Passage of SPLOST IV will help prevent the further erosion of the general fund as capital expenses can be largely covered through this special one-cent sales tax which is not a new one, but is a continuation of the current one,” he said.
What is the state of our school buses in the county? Do we really need new ones?
Under the proposed continuation of the 1 percent sales tax, the school system plans to purchase approximately 75 new school buses and perform maintenance for other school buses. Mathews directed questions about the school system’s buses to Michael Barr, NCSS Director of Support Services. Barr explained the cycle of purchasing and maintaining the school system’s buses.
He said during the previous five fiscal years, the school system has purchased a total of 26 buses. No buses were purchased during fiscal years 2009 and 2010. During fiscal years 2011 through 2013 a bond program developed by the Georgia Department of Education and the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission provided $1.06 million in funding for the purchase of 14 buses.
“This amount from the bond program covered approximately 58 percent of the total cost of these buses,” Barr said. “The balance of the cost for the 14 buses and the total cost of the other 12 buses was paid for using capital funds at a cost of $1,200,678. The funding received from the bond program is an item approved annually by the state legislature, and its ongoing authorization is not guaranteed.”
Barr said the replacement cycle for conventional buses is 10 years as established by the Georgia Department of Education. The average age of the school system’s bus fleet is 9.09 years.
“Presently, 33 percent of the fleet has been in service for more than 10 years,” Barr said. “If no funding is available, this number will increase to 79 percent by fiscal year 2020.”
He said during the term of SPLOST IV, it is estimated 175 buses will need to be replaced.
“The bond program authorized by the state legislature, if continued at the same funding level, would provide 58 percent of the total funding needed for the purchase of 25 buses during this period of time,” Barr said. “The funding provided by the bond program is woefully inadequate and places the burden of providing safe and dependable transportation on the local school system. By providing regular maintenance and inspections, the school system is working to extend the service life of its school buses to approximately 13 years. This will reduce the total number of buses needed from 175 to 101.”
Barr said it is anticipated SPLOST IV funds would generate enough funding for the purchase of 75 buses. He said the purchase of the remaining buses needed would depend on the allocation of funds from the Georgia Department of Education or other sources.
Do we really need a new Eastside High School?
Mathews previously listed building a replacement high school or making additions to current buildings dependent upon enrollment, growth and state funding, for a cost of $3.25 million as a SPLOST project.
The language of this listed priority has caused some questions, as many people have identified the replacement high school as Eastside High School and have asked if the replacement of EHS is even necessary.
“A new Eastside High School will only be built if enrollment so warrants,” he said. “It’s clear to me that this is certainly the sentiment of the majority of the Board of Education. So, even with the passage of a SPLOST referendum, the board will be obligated to build only if there is a real need, be it based on enrollment or the placement of the current theme school where EHS now resides. From discussions with BOE members, the majority does not want to build a new high school if the numbers don’t add up to that. They could, however, change their facility plan to build a new K-8 theme school if they so choose.”
How will the education SPLOST help relieve debt service?
School officials predict the sales tax is projected to raise approximately $55 to $58 million dollars over the course of a five-year period. Of that, $30 million projected to be raised is to go toward debt service payments. Mathews directed questions about the debt service to NCSS Business Manager, Peggy Bullard. Bullard discussed how the debt service millage rate would be affected if the education SPLOST did or didn’t pass.
“If the SPLOST passes, the debt service millage rate will be reduced for the calendar year 2014 tax bills and completely eliminated for the 2015 through 2019 tax years,” Bullard said. “The amount of the decrease for 2014 will depend on the value of the digest which will be determined in July 2014.
There are two separate millage rates for the school system, a general maintenance and operation rate, which accounts for the vast majority of tax payments to the schools, and the much smaller school bond (or debt service) millage rate.
“If the SPLOST does not pass, the millage rate could go up or down. The millage rate is determined based on the value of the tax digest. If property values continue to decrease, the debt service millage rate will go up. If property values begin to increase, the debt service millage rate will go down.”
Bullard said $30 million in SPLOST funds can be used to pay the principal and interest on bonds that are due from Feb. 1, 2015, through Aug. 1, 2020.
“That would eliminate the need for a “school bond” property tax for 2015 through 2019 to make these payments,” she said.
Early voting for the education SPLOST is scheduled to run until Friday, March 15. Voters can vote in the special election Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Newton County Administration Building. There will be no early voting at the county’s satellite location at the Porter Memorial Branch Library.
Tuesday, March 19, voters can vote at all 22 precincts in the county from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.