Although the 2013 elections are an off year for major election cycles, local residents will be faced with an important question in November with far-reaching local impact.
The education special purpose local option sales tax, or E-SPLOST, will be back on the ballot for the Nov. 5 elections. If the referendum is approved, collection of the penny sales tax referendum would begin collecting April 2014 and bring in $83.6 million for school capital projects over the next five years. E-SPLOST is slated to fund safety, technology, and building projects for Rockdale County Public Schools. Specifically, those projects include new buildings for Pine Street and J.H. House elementary schools, better security and access controls at several RCPS schools, technology infrastructure improvements, and a list of other projects.
Rockdale County saw three previous rounds of E-SPLOST and the dollars have been spent responsibly, according to Tony Wilson. Wilson is co-chairperson for Parents for the Future, a committee encouraging voters to vote yes on the referendum. He also served on the school board for eight years.
Wilson noted how RCPS was in $48 million in debt in 1997.
"With SPLOST, we were able to put a plan in place to pay off that debt, saving property owners in Rockdale County millions of dollars in interest payments, which only benefited the bank, not the children in our community," Wilson said.
RCPS remains debt-free and has collected $243 million, including interest, in the last 15 years of previous E-SPLOST cycles, according to Wilson. He said community visitors typically contribute 40 percent of the collected tax. Wilson crunched the numbers of how much of E-SPLOST is from non-residents and found visitors contributed $83 million.
"That’s $83 million that property owners in Rockdale County did not have to pony up," said Wilson, a father of two RCPS students, one at Heritage High School and the other at Edwards Middle School.
But local resident Brian Jenkins opposes E-SPLOST, saying it does not benefit students and their learning.
"That’s what we have teachers for," said Jenkins, who has a daughter attending Salem High School.
Wilson said, "while what goes on in the classroom is a vital component of the school system’s overall function, we do need to be mindful of that physical classroom itself and the infrastructure throughout the school system."
Capital improvement issues need to be addressed, according to Wilson, or it will be more costly in the long run if the school system falls behind.
Jenkins was skeptical of the building projects.
"I’d just like to see how this money is going to be recycled in the community in the form of employment opportunities," Jenkins said, mentioning apprenticeship programs from the building projects.
Jenkins pointed out how the greatest percent of taxpayers’ dollars go toward public school.
"I would like for them to show the public that they can do more with less, as opposed to giving them more money," Jenkins said.
Parents for the Future co-chairperson Darlene Hotchkiss touted projects built with funds from other E-SPLOST cycles such as Rockdale Career Academy, the Rockdale Magnet School Annex, the new CJ Hicks Elementary School, performing arts auditoriums and more.
The E-SPLOST III, which just concluded collections in March 2013, collected only about 75 percent, $94.8 million, of what planners had originally anticipated before the economic recession. However RCPS was able to finish and fund all the projects on its list, partly due to cheaper costs during a recession. Some of the projects built with E-SPLOST III funds include the Rockdale Career Academy public safety wing expansion, new school busses, repainting and school repairs.
Hotchkiss said Parents for the Future wants Rockdale County to have all of the information about E-SPLOST.
The group will host a community forum at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Nancy Guinn Library.
However, Jenkins questioned why community meetings were not held sooner, instead of two weeks from voting day. Jenkins said organizers "should have had it multiple times for a multi-million dollar project."
The group has been holding informational meetings with clubs, civic groups, Chamber groups, and nonprofit groups to explain more about E-SPLOST.
According to Wilson, public feedback about E-SPLOST has been "extremely positive."
"The needs are always there for the school system as we continue to grow and serve more students," Wilson said of this year’s E-SPLOST compared to other years.
For a list of the projects to be funded by the E-SPLOST collections, go to www.rockdalenews.com or portal.rockdale.k12.ga.us/community/Pages/E-SPLOST-IV.aspx