The Bulloch County Board of Education is slated to vote on a resolution Thursday evening calling for renewal of the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for five years with a referendum Nov. 7.
If approved by voters, the five-year run of the ESPLOST from Jan. 1, 2019, through 2023 would be a continuation of a 1 percent tax already collected. It is projected to net about $52 million during those five years. If revenue outgrows that projection, the tax would be capped at $62 million.
Bulloch County's ESPLOST, first approved by voters in 2003 and renewed, far in advance of the times it would have expired, in 2005 and 2009, has collected about $148 million. Assisted by some state funding, the tax paid for most of the older schools to be rebuilt or replaced with new schools of the same name, beginning with the three high schools and concluding with the Mattie Lively, Sallie Zetterower and Julia P. Bryant elementary schools.
But unlike the previous three rounds of ESPLOST, no new schools are planned for this one.
"Historically, that's what they have been for, but we're in a unique situation in our county with this ESPLOST, which is ESPLOST 4, in that we can address some needs that are not just school buildings," said Bulloch County Schools Chief Operations Officer Paul Webb.
Proposed system-wide spending includes $22 million for technology and related school furnishings, about $4 million for school buses, and $750,000 for a new program of regularly scheduled replacement of playground equipment.
At the board's discretion, various amounts would be applied to schools' requests for things such as resurfaced tracks, remodeled front entrances, gymnasiums, campus lighting, added classrooms and improved lunchrooms.
An ESPLOST Committee, consisting of four of the eight Board of Education members and 16 community members from the various school zones, organized in December and met through the early months of this year. Principals of the 15 schools, the administrator of the alternative school program and some central-office administrators made presentations.
Using a scoring system, the committee produced a prioritized list of school-specific projects.
Big on technology
But the biggest proposal was a technology committee's five-year plan, with the $22 million price tag, presented in January by school system Chief Information Officer Craig Liggett and Student Support Executive Director Dr. Virginia Bennett.
Besides classroom tools such as a digital platform for learning management and equipment for video production and digital editing, the technology proposal earmarks funds for STEM lab furnishings and "collaborative classroom spaces," such as tables for group projects. The big tech plan also includes textbooks or the content-specific digital materials that could take their place.
Security equipment, such as security cameras and entry identification systems, is also part of the technology plan, as are infrastructure elements such as servers and a backup generator.
After several elementary schools requested upgraded playgrounds, Webb helped the committee develop a plan to fund playground equipment purchases on a continuing rotation. Previously, the school system had no funding plan for playground equipment. Groups such as parent-teacher organizations usually raised money for it, resulting in schools with active PTOs having better equipment, he said.
The plan is for two different "schools" to receive playground funding each year during the five years of the ESPLOST. There are only nine elementary schools, but the prekindergarten programs at the three high schools, each of which has a small playground, would be grouped together as the 10th school unit.
"Probably what we would do, but of course this would be left up to the board, would be to look at the schools that have the oldest playgrounds and address those needs, working our way back to our newest schools," Webb said. "It just gives us a system going forward, for years to come, hopefully, that we can keep updated with the safest playground equipment possible."
His original proposal was for each of the 10 school units with playgrounds to receive $75,000 at some point during the five years. Committee members asked for this to be adjusted to school enrollment, but Webb said he does not know how this could be done because enrollment can shift, and the end of the tax period is seven years way.
He has proposed a similar approach for replacement of furniture such as student desks and cafeteria tables, but did not have a dollar estimate.
Relief for general fund
For Bulloch County, including school bus replacement in an ESPLOST plan is also new, and is expected to cost about $800,000 a year, with 10 buses replaced annually, said Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown.
During the board's discussions of the fiscal year 2018 budget earlier this year, Brown and Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson suggested shifting some general fund costs to ESPLOST. This, they said, would be one way for the board to address deficit spending that is reducing the general fund's reserve balance.
Some of the technology items covered by the ESPLOST proposal, such as classroom computers due to be replaced and instructional software, as well as textbooks and the school buses, would previously have been included in the general fund, Brown said Wednesday.
"Those will be able to be paid with ESPLOST funds, which traditionally had been paid out of our general fund, so that will help relieve some of the burden on the general fund," he said.
The general fund receives state appropriations, the regular Local Option Sales Tax, which is different from ESPLOST, and property taxes.
The proposed referendum question names every school as a beneficiary and lists general categories of spending, not specific projects. It would also authorize borrowing up to $40 million, to be repaid with the tax, for moving projects forward.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.