With a community committee meeting Wednesday, the Bulloch County Schools kicked off planning to extend the Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for five more years.
The referendum is proposed for Nov. 7, 2017, even though the current five-year run of the tax doesn’t expire until Dec. 31, 2018. To shoppers, the tax is a penny on each dollar spent in Bulloch County, a penny they are already paying. But to the school system, it would mean more than $50 million revenue over five years.
Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson told committee members that “ESPLOST 4” will be unlike any previous installment of the tax.
“ESPLOST 4 is very critical,” he said. “It’s really what we call a catalyst in making that shift toward some of the new things we want to do.”
It would take effect Jan. 1, 2019, and run through December 2023.
Freeing other funds
With no further need to build new schools, some sales tax money could be spent for things such as digital tablets for classroom use and network infrastructure, Wilson suggested.
He and the Board of Education are also looking at the ESPLOST as part of an overall approach to funding the schools, to help alleviate the prospect of property tax increases. State law prohibits paying salaries with ESPLOST funds, as school system Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown explained. But Wilson said ESPLOST can be used as part of a “portfolio-based approach,” looking at all available resources.
In other words, by using some of the special sales tax for things such as school buses, textbooks and updated technology, which might otherwise be general fund expenditures, the school system can free up some local property tax and state funding.
“This gives us a little room over here to do some of the things that directly affect student learning every day,” Wilson said.
However, he mentioned athletic fields and improvements to existing classroom buildings as potential uses as well.
Bulloch County voters have approved an ESPLOST three times. Most recently, for the current 2014-2018 ESPLOST, the referendum was held even further in advance, in 2009.
Beginning with the first ESPLOST, approved in 2003, the school system supplemented this local revenue source with state funding to build new schools and completely replace the oldest buildings among the 15 campuses. But at this point, no new schools are being planned.
“In terms of new schools, the state says we have enough classroom space for our current population for the next five years, so we would not get any state money to build schools,” said Paul Webb, the Bulloch County Schools’ chief operations officer.
ESPLOST 1, which ran from January 2004 through December 2008, collected $48 million. ESPLOST 2, from 2009 through 2013, collected $49 million, and the current ESPLOST 3, which will last through 2018, is projected to collect roughly $51 million, Brown reported.
So with no increase in consumer spending, ESPLOST 4 would also be expected to net $51 million, he said. Brown promised that more detailed projections will be provided later.
Many meetings ahead
At Wednesday’s 11:30 a.m. introductory meeting, Webb and Wilson set out a schedule they admitted called for a big commitment from ESPLOST committee members. Members were given dates for 15 proposed meetings on Thursdays from Jan. 5 through April 27.
“The whole purpose of this committee is to get you to dig in, brainstorm, talk about what those needs are, and we’re asking you to identify those needs and prioritize them so you can make a recommendation back to me, to us, so I can go back to the board,” Wilson said.
Principals will make presentations about their schools’ needs, probably beginning at the Jan. 19 committee meeting, Webb said.
Invited committee members included people from each of the school communities, he said. Labels with the names of 21 community members, who are not members of the elected Board of Education, were set out around facing tables. Of those identified, 10 attended Wednesday.
Board of Education members Maurice Hill, Glennera Martin, Mike Sparks and Cheri Wagner had volunteered to meet with the committee. All except Martin attended Wednesday. Heather Mims, Board of Education member-elect from District 7, also attended, and will begin her term in January.
Instructional needs will be the board’s “high priority,” Wagner said, adding that she knows the schools have technology needs.
But the board wants to look at other needs and prioritize all projects based on the perceptions of parents, students and community members such as business people, as well as educators, she said.
“We really value our stakeholders and their input, and that is why we’re convening this committee,” Wagner said.
Wilson hinted that he also hopes, in or through the committee, to reach citizens who will advocate on their own for voter approval.
Committee members were given a summary page about Georgia’s Ethics in Government Act, which prohibits the use of public funds to campaign for or against passage of a tax referendum. School system officials are advised not to campaign in their official capacity or during work hours, but may educate voters and provide factual information, the summary stated. A group of citizens who are not school system employees faces no such restrictions.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.