By early Tuesday afternoon, 68 people had cast in-person advanced ballots in the Bulloch County ESPLOST referendum, while 51 had voted in Statesboro’s mayoral election.
Early voting began Monday in the two separate elections that will conclude with voting at traditional polling places Nov. 7. The one location for early voting in both elections is the county annex at 113 North Main St., where elections office employees are informing eligible voters that two separate ballots are required, whether for in-person voting on the touch-screen machines or by mailed absentee ballots.
The Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax proposal on the countywide ballot has committee members campaigning for it, but no known, organized opposition.
“This is a continuation of an existing tax, so this isn’t a new tax that the referendum would bring,” said ESPLOST Committee member Ashley Ellis, “and when I think about what our schools would look like across the county had we not had these past three ESPLOSTs, I would hate to think without those funds what our schools would look like, and what our technology, or the lack thereof, would be.”
Ellis, who has one son in sixth grade at William James Middle School and another in ninth grade at Statesboro High School, is an insurance agent and part owner of a local agency. One of at least 16 non-school-board members who served on the committee, she praised the process for its inclusiveness.
The committee, she said, includes people from across the county, in different kinds of employment, from different school zones, of different ages.
“Some of us are more athletic folks, some were more in the arts, some were more in the STEM classes, and they have been very intentional to make sure that the allocation of these funds is representative of what the community feels that allocation needs to be,” she said.
Of the eight elected Bulloch County Board of Education members, four – Chair Cheri Wagner, Maurice Hill, Mike Sparks and Glennera Martin – also served on the committee, which first met in December and began evaluating schools’ perceived needs in January.
After voting to place the ESPLOST referendum on the ballot, the Board of Education is letting the community members, who are recruited volunteers, do the campaigning. A state law prohibits school system employees from campaigning for a referendum in their official capacity, but they can provide factual information.
The ESPLOST, which is one of two 1 percent local sales taxes whose proceeds go to the Bulloch County Schools, will expire Dec. 31, 2018, unless most voters approve an extension. If the referendum passes, the ESPLOST will continue to be collected from Jan. 1, 2019 through 2023.
Recent trends put the five-year revenue forecast closer to $52 million, but the referendum caps it at $62 million, allowing for unexpected growth in sales. The referendum question also seeks to authorize up to $40 million in debt, meaning that the board could borrow that much for projects and pay off the loans with EPLOST proceeds.
Most of the revenue from the three previous five-year installments of the tax went to build and renovate schools. But through its selection of projects, the committee has recommended that roughly half of this one be used for other needs, including safety and security equipment; instructional and technology resources and other equipment ranging from school buses to copiers.
A complete list of proposed projects for ESPLOST IV can be found on the webpage www.bullochschools.org/esplost.
The list earmarks $22 million for technology. This includes classroom devices for individual student and teacher use, in time replacing computer labs; LED display panels to replace aging smartboards and STEM labs for hands-on science, technology, engineering and math learning.
But the proposed technology purchases also include safety and security equipment, such as 1,415 security cameras stated as in need of replacement, entrance control systems, security badges, two-way radios and other devices.
A separate $1.15 million is slated for playground equipment and school furniture, to be distributed to schools on a schedule, with amounts based on enrollment.
Another major portion of the funds, $7.5 million, has been proposed for purchases that would otherwise be funded from the general fund. School system officials have proposed this as a way to prevent further erosion of the general fund reserve and reduce or eliminate the need for a property tax increase. School buses, textbooks, e-books and software are named in this category.
The remainder could go to building projects and improvements including athletic facilities, roofs and air conditioning systems. The “ESPLOST IV Proposed Projects” document ends with a list of needs and wants identified by individual schools in a ranked order, from highest-priority, with scores assigned by the committee.
In every case the Board of Education will make decisions on specific projects, with the referendum earmarking only general categories of spending.
Everyone who shops in Bulloch County pays this and other local sales taxes, and Ellis said about 40 percent of ESPLOST revenue comes from shoppers who are not Bulloch residents. People who do not have children or grandchildren in the public schools should be interested, she said.
“We need lots of good education options for our community, but when you look at the economic development of our community, we have to have a strong public school system, so it affects everyone,” she said.
ESPLOST town hall
While taking an arms-length to the committee’s campaigning, the Board of Education is turning its Oct. 26 regular work session into a town hall meeting about ESPLOST. The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the cafetorium at the Bulloch County Schools central office complex, 150 Williams Road, instead of the board’s smaller meeting room in the same complex.
Meanwhile, three candidates are actively campaigning for mayor in Statesboro’s city elections, with at least two forums planned.
Agape Worship Center’s Youth Development program is sponsoring a forum Wednesday in the conference center at SpringHill Suites, at 6:30 p.m. following a 6 p.m. meet-and-greet.
The Statesboro Herald will host a mayoral candidate forum 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23, in the cafetorium at the Bulloch County Schools central office complex, 150 Williams Road.
The count of in-person advanced voting in both elections, as of 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, was provided by Bulloch County Election Supervisor Patricia Lanier Jones.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.