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School board receives $43 million from ESPLOST bonds
Immediate purchases include buses, gym bleachers, 3,800 Chromebooks
esplost bond
Superintendent Charles Wilson, left, and BOE Chair Mike Sparks sign documents for $43 million worth of school bonds. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

The Bulloch County Board of Education approved documents Thursday accepting proceeds from a $40 million face-value bond sale and promising to repay buyers with ESPLOST money.  The bonds sold earlier that day at a premium, netting $43 million.

Before Thursday evening’s meeting ended, portions of the money had been spent on school buses, gym bleachers, science learning kits and a plan to put school-owned Chromebook computers in the hands of all students in second through 12th grades who don’t already have them. Last November, a large majority of Bulloch voters approved a five-year extension of the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

This latest installment of the ESPLOST, expected to net at least $51 million and capped at $62 million, doesn’t begin until Jan. 1. But Thursday’s bond sale, also authorized by the referendum, lets the school system move ahead with major purchases as well as some building improvements.

“Board members, we are excited to announce that we went onto the bond market this morning and sold $40 million worth of bonds – we didn’t, but our underwriter did,” announced Superintendent Charles Wilson.

The bond underwriter was Raymond James and Associates. The bond attorney was Jon Pannell, who attended the meeting.

The board approved, by 7-0 votes, the bond resolution, intercept resolution and tax recommending resolution. These documents direct ESPLOST revenue to repay the bonds but provide that property tax would be used if the sales tax somehow fell short.

An included schedule shows that the bonds are to be repaid over five years, with principal and interest amounting to a little over $47.4 million. The bonds sold for $44 million, and after costs of issuing them were subtracted, provided the $43 million. Wilson said the total borrowing cost amounts to an annual rate of 2.27 percent.


Chromebooks 1-to-1

The board approved the purchase of approximately 3,800 Hewlett Packard Chromebooks from SHI International Corp for $198.50 each for the computers plus $23.05 for a Google Chrome management license on each.

This is the heart of a plan, with an estimated cost of $1,178,079 for the 2018-19 school year, for providing a laptop computer to every student in second through 12th grade, called “one-to-one” coverage.

Some accessory items, such as carrying sleeves and carts for the Chromebooks, were included in the cost estimates, but will not be needed at every school, said Craig Liggett, the Bulloch County Schools’ chief information officer.

The one-to-one program has a budget of $3.2 million over the five years. The school system already has around 5,600 Chromebooks, but needed about 8,800 for all the students in grades 2-12, Liggett said after the meeting.

“Our schools over the last five or six years have been building up their Chromebook fleet in order to get to one-to-one,” he said. “We just haven’t been able to do it completely through the funds that we had, which is why the ESPLOST is so beneficial to us.”

The board also approved the purchase of Schoology learning management system access for use with the Chromebooks. This is an online platform with “anytime, anywhere content,” for use by students, teachers and parents, athletes and coaches, said Dr. Virginia Bennett, Bulloch schools executive director of academic support.

Schoology  access has a  has a first-year cost of $87,515 and a total five-year cost of $349,374. The cost projections also include training in the use of the software and user support.

For the Chromebooks, school system staff members scored SHI’s proposal highest among eight vendors. Schoology was ranked slightly higher than two other learning systems by a similar method.


Take them home?

District 4 board member Steve Hein asked for discussion on whether students will be able to take the Chromebooks home. He said he thought that was part of what “one-to-one” implies, and that it would include an expectation of responsibility for students.

The principals and their leadership teams at each of the schools decide whether students can take the Chromebooks home, Liggett said.

“I know that in some instances the school is looking at allowing students to take them home for use, but some of the school leadership teams are not there yet,” he said.

School leaders propose to provide self-insurance of the computers against loss or damage by having students pay a $25 technology fee, Liggett said. Wilson said this would be capped at $50 per family. There will be a waiver application process for families who cannot afford the fee, Liggett said.

Hein voted for both purchases and said the question of whether all schools should allow students to take the computers home as a countywide expectation can be revisited later.


Buses and STEM

Now shifted from the general fund to ESPLOST, the annual purchase of replacement school buses this year includes nine. Traditionally, state bond funding covers the purchase of one to two buses. ESPLOST will cover the remaining seven to eight, Chief Operations Officer Paul Webb noted in his memo.

The $830,500 order approved by the board includes seven air-conditioned 77-passenger standard buses for $91,500 each and two air-conditioned special needs buses for $95,000 each, all from low bidder International Corporation.

STEMscopes learning materials from sole provider Accelerate Learning for kindergarten through eighth-grade classes were another approved ESPLOST purchase. The total cost is $111,381. These materials include classroom kits for early-grades science through biology, chemistry and physics, plus online access.


Bleachers and  more

Also funded from ESPLOST, an order of retractable bleachers for the Langston Chapel Middle School, William James Middle School and Southeast Bulloch Middle School gyms was awarded to H.E. Hodge Company of Cumming.  Hodge asked $179,478 in the lowest of three qualifying sealed bids from installers.

Each set of bleachers will seat 760 people.

With no schools to build or overhaul in the next five years, the ESPLOST will pay for more purchases of the types illustrated Thursday, as well as some relatively small-scale facilities upgrades.

The last 18 projects identified by a countywide facilities committee three years ago and the first two projects ranked by the more recent ESPLOST committee will all be moving forward now, Webb told the board. The bleachers were the next project costing more than $100,000.

“All 20 of those are in the pipeline at some point, whether it be tonight’s approval … or whether it be a design phase, or whether it be getting ready to get a couple of quotes for some paving projects,”  Webb said. “Between now really and August 1st all 20 projects will be moving forward.”



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