The education SPLOST referendum is fast approaching and Newton County School Superintendent Gary Mathews took the opportunity to explain the need for the continued sales tax at his Community Leadership Forum Tuesday morning.
Mathews explained the priorities of SPLOST: debt service property tax relief, school security, school technology, school maintenance and student transportation; with buildings or additions built on an as-needed basis resulting from growth in enrollment and availability of state funding to help offset costs.
With the school system’s maintenance and operations millage rate maxed out at 20 mils, there is no way to raise the rate. The tax digest in Newton County declined around 34 percent since 2008, which means a loss of revenue for the NCSS of more than $19 million.
Cuts have been made by the NCSS for the past several years as a way to stay financially stable in light of the economic decline locally.
"The school system has responded by cutting more than $26 million from its general fund budget while facing pressure from millions of dollars in increased expenses such as employee health insurance and retirement benefits, textbooks, fuel and utilities and the expansion of the theme school and the opening of the Newton College and Career Academy," reads a release from Mathews.
"Since 2008, the school system has been able to purchase technology, maintain buildings and purchase school buses and pay off school bus leases in the amount of approximately $6.7 million from SPLOST funds. Without SPLOST, these purchases and payments would have come from the general fund budget or simply not be made."
Though some have expressed concern that taxes will increase if SPLOST is approved for another five years, Mathews said that is not the case, and the NCSS has also vowed to provide $30 million in school bond property tax relief for property owners in Newton County, resulting in the elimination of the debt service property tax for the five year period of SPLOST.
SPLOST can only be used for capital expenditures, the school system is not able to use monies from SPLOST for salaries, textbooks, utilities or any other operating expenses such as those.
Mathews also presented a list of SPLOST projects and the amount they are expected to cost.
• Debt service tax relief, $30 million
• School security: the purchase of a Viewpath S.A.F.E. camera, audio and silent alarm system for every classroom in every school, $3.85 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 school buses and other bus maintenance equipment, $9.6 million
• Begin construction of a replacement high school or make additions to current buildings dependent upon enrollment, growth and state funding, $3.25 million.
Although the current SPLOST will not expire until 2015, the board must wait at least 18 months before they can request another vote. Voting March 19 allows them to hold at least one more vote prior to the Dec. 31, 2014 expiration of the current SPLOST so that the tax will continue without interruption.
"I’m excited to have been asked to share this role with Danny [Stone, manager of Economic Development for Snapping Shoals]," said Bea Jackson, who is serving with Stone as co-chair of the SPLOST IV referendum.
"We are very strong supporters of education in our community, and we believe in the work that has been done in prior years and have seen over time the benefits it has done for us and our school."
Jackson, who is the director of the Washington Street Community Center, added that it was important to support the county’s educators and make sure they have the tools and resources needed to educate the children of the county.