Critics of DeKalb County’s school board may have to root for the school SPLOST to pass if they want to remake the board.
A state law reducing the size of the school board to seven from nine members in 2013 says that it applies to counties with a school special purpose local option sales tax, a homestead option sales tax and a school board with more than seven members.
The requirements were included in the law in an effort to make it apply only to DeKalb. But if SPLOST IV is voted down, the law would no longer apply, a proponent told north DeKalb residents recently. The current SPLOST expires in 2012.
“This SPLOST is tied to reform efforts in the DeKalb County school system… ,” Marshall D. Orson, a representative of Friends of DeKalb Education IV, told more than 50 north DeKalb residents who attended a town hall meeting Oct. 26. “The legislation requires the SPLOST to be in effect.”
Orson said a vote against the SPLOST could send a message to DeKalb school board members that they are not being held to account for past district problems, he said. The district’s former superintendent and chief operating officer face theft and racketeering charges over handling of school construction projects.
Defeating the SPLOST, he said, also would provide a cold greeting to new Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson.
“Quite frankly, the most unwelcoming thing in the world to a new superintendent is to defeat her primary means of financing new schools,” he said.
Allegra Johnson, who has two children at Kingsley Charter School and one at Peachtree Charter Middle School, said she doesn’t have faith in the education sales tax because of the history of mismanagement with SPLOST dollars in DeKalb County.
“What’s being written and publicized isn’t exactly where the money is going to go,” Johnson said.
She said her biggest concern is what will happen if the SPLOST is not approved by voters.
“My biggest problem is that they have no contingency. What happens to the kids?” Johnson said. “The distrust from parents right now makes it a reality that it won’t pass.”
Atkinson said the school system won’t be able to fund the SPLOST projects if the sales tax isn’t renewed.
“We as a district have about $2 billion in needs,” Atkinson said. “I can tell you we don’t have the dollars to do what’s in the plan. I don’t know what we would do if it doesn’t pass.”
Jovan Moses, a parent of a Dunwoody Elementary School student, said she will likely vote for the SPLOST even though she doesn’t agree with all of the projects.
“I support it simply because though we have a great education system in Dunwoody, our schools are failing. Austin (Elementary) needs to be torn down. Chestnut (Elementary) needs to be torn down,” Moses said. “If it means I have to pay an extra penny for kids to walk into a school where paint is not peeling off the walls… I’ll pay it.”
SPLOST IV is on the Nov. 8 ballot in DeKalb. If approved, it is expected to raise $475 million. Approval would continue a 1-cent sales tax for school purposes in DeKalb for another five years. A similar sales tax has been in place since 1997.
SPLOST IV funds are promised to pay to rebuild Chamblee High School in Chamblee and Austin Elementary in Dunwoody, and seven other schools; to expand or renovate Henderson Middle and four other central and south DeKalb schools; to purchase new technology equipment across the district; to buy buses and service vehicles; and to improve school security.
Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), who has supported efforts to reform the school board, said that if the SPLOST vote fails, it would require lawmakers to pass new legislation to shrink the board. He said he thought such a bill would pass easily. “We’d just turn around and pass another bill in January,” he said.
Millar said he supported passage of SPLOST IV. “We still need to support the schools,” he said. “I don’t think the way to show your displeasure is [by defeating] SPLOST.”
Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-DeKalb), who co-sponsored legislation reducing the size of the board, said he did not think voters should base their decision on the SPLOST by calculating its effect on the board downsizing. If the SPLOST fails, he said, lawmakers likely will just draft a new law next year to shrink the board.
Jacobs said he hadn’t decided whether to support the SPLOST. “I am still deciding,” he said. “There are some very good north DeKalb projects on the list, but there are also plenty of reasons to be unhappy with the school board’s administration of the SPLOST for the past five years.”
Orson said that if the SPLOST doesn’t pass, the only option available to the board to raise funds for future school construction or renovation would be property taxes. “The SPLOST is the main mechanism we use to build new school buildings in DeKalb,” he said. “There really isn’t another source of funds to do that.”
Even if the tax is backed by the voters, Orson said, it will raise only a small portion of the money the DeKalb system needs for repairs and renovations to its buildings. An independent assessment recently identified $2.2 billion in replacement and renovation needs for the system, he said.
Education sales tax projects
The largest issue facing DeKalb voters when they go to the polls Nov. 8 will be a decision to continue the 1-cent sales tax raising funds for school construction. The fourth version of the tax would continue for five years. If approved, the sales tax is projected to raise $475 million, which would pay for a number of specific school improvements. Several north DeKalb projects are included.
Here are some of the local projects to be paid for by the tax:
-Ashford Park- HVAC and kitchen equipment, replace grease trap and backflow preventer, replace intrusion alarm system
-Dresden: install HVAC, lighting, roof replacements, kitchen equipment, replace intrusion alarm system
-Montgomery: install HVAC, replace intrusion alarm system
-Woodward: install HVAC, replace kitchen equipment, replace roof openings, replace grease trap, replace intrusion alarm system
-Chamblee – replace emergency generator
-Sequoyah- replace grease trap and backflow preventer
-Chamblee: replacement high school
-Cross Keys: replace piping
Source: DeKalb County Public Schools