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Bulloch E-SPLOST will build one school; options limited for more
Referendum capped sales tax at $110 million over 5 years, but bond issuance at $80 million
Superintendent Charles Wilson speaks during the Nov. 10, 2022, Bulloch County Board of Education meeting, where he thanked voters for supporting a five-year extension of the Education SPLOST, expected to fund construction of a new Southeast Bulloch High S
Superintendent Charles Wilson speaks during the Nov. 10, 2022, Bulloch County Board of Education meeting, where he thanked voters for supporting a five-year extension of the Education SPLOST, expected to fund construction of a new Southeast Bulloch High School. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

The five-year E-SPLOST extension approved by 71.8% of Bulloch County voters Nov. 8 should cover the cost of adding one school – the new Southeast Bulloch High – but officials don’t know whether it will pay for anything more than that, says Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson.

“That’s a really good question that we don’t have an answer to right now,” he said when interviewed after the Nov. 10 Board of Education meeting. “First things first, we have a Southeast Bulloch High School and we have a lot of growth down on that end of that county, and we have got to think long-range and work back to where we are now.”

In answer to further questions – and in implicit response to an outgoing board member who urged the board to buy land and build more schools – Wilson explained how the revenue available for that purpose will be limited.

Speaking to the board during the meeting, he had shared hopes that the population growth from announced new industries will probably be more “a steady rising of the tide” than a rapid “massive tidal wave.”

“I want to also thank our voters,” Wilson said. “We’re very fortunate to live in a community where each time we’ve reached out people have been willing to support and continue to provide E-SPLOST, which is how we will build our schools for the next five years, and in particular in the Southeast Bulloch community.”

But in the interview after the meeting, he acknowledged that temporary measures, especially the use of portable classrooms, will become necessary for the Bulloch County Schools while the new high school is built, existing schools in the Southeast Bulloch area are adapted to new grade levels, and longer-range plans are made.

“Portable classrooms will have to be a part of a temporary solution in all of this,” Wilson said. “It’s already becoming so.”

 

Rising tide

More than a year before the announcement that Hyundai Motor Group’s electric vehicle meta-plant would be built in northern Bryan County to eventually employ 8,100 people, population growth in the SEB zone had prompted Wilson and staff to propose adding a school.

Nearly a year after that discussion began, Aspen Aerogels began construction of a factory expected to employ 250 people in Bulloch County’s commerce park on U.S. Highway 301 at the I-16 interchange. Then on Nov. 7, state and local officials announced that Hyundai parts supplier Joon Georgia plans to build a factory there creating 630 jobs.

Wilson’s “rising of the tide” comment was based on observations by other officials that some of the jobs will be taken by people who already live here and that the availability of housing could be a limiting factor.

 

$80M bond limit

The wording of the Nov. 8 referendum capped revenue from the 1% Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax at a maximum of $110 million over the next five years. That was in the fourth line of the four-paragraph text. The final paragraph authorized $80 million of “general obligation debt.”

That smaller amount, $80 million, is closer to what would be expected at current monthly revenue levels.

In fact, the previous five-year E-SPLOST, from a 2017 referendum, is still being collected and was originally projected to expire at the end of December 2023. But the 2017 referendum contained a $62 million revenue cap, now expected to be hit by June, six months early.

So, the new $110 revenue million limit was intended to be so high that it will not be reached in five years. “We do not want to run into that same issue that we ran into,” Wilson said.

However, the $80 million debt authorization imposes a real restriction by capping how much the school district can borrow by issuing bonds to be repaid with E-SPLOST revenue.

 

Cost vs. funding

Back in March 2021, Wilson and Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Troy Brown cited $50 million to $60 million as a very rough cost projection for building the new high school.

“We can’t come back with another bond issue unless we have the resources to back the bond issuance, so all we have to work with over the next five years is $80 million,” Wilson said last week, referring to new, local financing only.

Bulloch County Schools would also receive some funding from the state for the school construction. In spring 2021, Brown cited an $8 million estimate of the state capital outlay and projected that the planned repurposing of schools could save about $7 million from the previous, 2017-authorized E-SPLOST by eliminating the need for some renovations.

 

Plan for SEB zone

Upon receiving the high school grades, 9-12, the new school would free up the existing SEB High to become Southeast Bulloch Middle School, with grades 6-8, and in turn, the current middle school would become a new entity proposed as “Southeast Bulloch Upper Elementary.”

 By receiving fourth and fifth grades from throughout the larger SEB zone, the upper elementary school would leave Brooklet Elementary, Nevils Elementary and Stilson Elementary with more classrooms for prekindergarten through third grade.

Since March, the Board of Education has held a contract to buy an 89-acre tract adjacent to SEB Middle School for $2.35 million as the high school site. After a six-month extension, the deal is slated to be acted on by Jan. 6. Meanwhile, two new members, elected in May, are set to join the board.

“E-SPLOST has now passed, so we have resources to work with,” Wilson said in the interview. “We have new board members coming on that need to be part of this discussion, and what we know is we’re going to have to build a school, we know where we’re likely going to build it, we know we’re having growth.

“The question that has to be discussed and answered is, what size are we going to build to cover what area, and how do we go about that,” he said.

He said he believes the school system can probably get through the next five years with the current plan, “but we’re going to need to meet ourselves in that five years and start planning to build those middle and elementary (schools) to alleviate the stress that’s being put on the converted schools.”

 

Newkirk’s concern

District 4 BOE member April Newkirk had been the first to mention school construction during Thursday’s meeting. She lost her re-election bid in May to Donna Clifton, who will take the seat in January.

Announcing that the November meeting was the last she expects to attend as a board member, Newkirk thanked the community and said it has been an honor to serve. She also said the school system has “a long way to go” to recover after the pandemic and must allow parents and the community back into the schools.

“And then as a board, y’all, we’ve got to build some schools,” Newkirk said. “We’re about to be in trouble. Buy some land; build some schools. We’ve got to. It’s not a question of if, it’s just a matter of we should’ve, already.”

She also urged the creation of a career academy, which she referred to as a CTAE academy, for career, technical and agricultural education.

“We need a CTAE academy. …,” Newkirk said. “It would be a significant addition to our already amazing CTAE programs. I think an academy would allow us to pull from the overcrowding in our high schools, bring in heavy equipment pathways and things like that, get the support of all of these businesses that are coming to our community to help us do that, get the grant from the state.”

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