The Board of Education hasn’t voted on a resolution yet, but an ESPLOST committee has been meeting since December, evaluating projects for a Nov. 7 referendum that would extend Bulloch County’s 1 percent sales tax for school facilities and equipment another five years.
The current Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax runs through 2018, but the idea is to seek voter approval a year in advance to renew the tax from Jan. 1, 2019 through 2023. In those five years, the ESPLOST is expected to net more than $50 million. Two previous ESPLOSTs, passed in 2003 and 2005, and the current one, approved in 2009, helped build new schools.
But with needs for all-new classroom facilities met, the focus has changed to things such as technology, playground equipment, gymnasiums, lunchroom improvements and security.
“Traditionally we were in a building mode and a renovation mode, so this will be the first year that we’ve had a SPLOST referendum where it’s not going for the construction of a new school, so that’s why we’ve looked heavily at what other things it can be used for,” said Hayley Greene, the Bulloch County Schools’ public relations specialist.
During budget discussions earlier this spring, Superintendent Charles Wilson and Chief Financial Officer Troy Brown suggested that the Board of Education consider shifting some types of expected expenses from the general fund to ESPLOST for future years. In the general fund for operating the schools, board-approved spending is now exceeding revenue, which comes from state funding, local property tax and the regular Local Option Sales Tax.
Bulloch is one of a handful of Georgia counties where the permanent LOST is devoted to school operations instead of to the county government. This is different from the ESPLOST, which expires if not renewed by voters and can only be spent on certain things.
These include long-lasting items such as buildings and athletic facilities, as well as books, school buses and various kinds of hardware, from wireless routers and smartboards to classroom tables and lunchroom equipment.
A big committee
The ESPLOST committee consists of four of the eight Board of Education members plus 16 community members from the various school zones. After holding an organizational meeting in December, the committee first heard from some central office administrators, and then from principals of each of the 15 schools and the administrator of Transitions Learning Center, or TLC, the alternative school program.
Each principal was asked to make a 30-minute presentation, sharing five top needs of his or her school. As shown in the committee’s list, several elementary school principals cited a need for new playground equipment or playground upgrades.
Instead of addressing these individually, the committee is proposing to fund schools a certain amount for playground needs on a schedule, much as schools are scheduled now for new paint and floorcoverings. Paul Webb, the school system’s chief operating officer, is working out the details, said Board of Education Chair Cheri Wagner, who also chairs the ESPLOST committee.
“Should the ESPLOST pass, each school will now get equipment money to purchase what playground equipment they feel best meets the needs of their schools,” Wagner said. “We heard several schools present that they wanted equipment, but they wanted varying types of equipment, so we felt like that was a better way of allowing them the autonomy to pick what bet fits their needs.”
But technology and updated classroom furnishings will probably take up a much larger share of ESPLOST dollars under the emerging proposal.
At an ESPLOST committee meeting in January, school system Chief Information Officer Craig Liggett and Student Support Executive Director Dr. Virginia Bennett reported a technology committee’s five-year plan with a projected $22 million price tag.
Within this amount, a “Classroom Tech Resources” subcategory would earmark $5.1 million for items such as a learning management digital platform and content-specific digital materials that take the place of printed textbooks.
An additional $9.8 million was suggested for “Classroom Tech Tools” such as audio and video equipment, including video production and digital editing equipment. Art equipment and physical education equipment were also suggested for funding under this category.
A $3 million “Collaborative Classroom Spaces” subcategory would be for classroom furnishings, such as tables for group projects and supplies for STEM labs.
Another $2 million for security equipment, such as security camera and entry identification systems, and $2.5 million for technology infrastructure, such as network switches, servers and a backup generator, were also included in the $22 million technology plan.
“Technology is a big piece of it, and technology directly helps our students as well as our teachers to the ultimate goal of why we’re here, learning and educating the students,” Wagner said in an interview Thursday. “So Mr. Liggett has put together a packet … and that was a piece that we heard a lot from principals as well.”
So, a number of items from the schools’ requests would be covered by the countywide playground and technology funding.
The committee ranked the other requests, about 60 of them, by a numerical scoring system.
Rated this way, the top five items were resurfacing Statesboro High School’s track, remodeling Langston Chapel Middle School’s front entrance for added security, adding a second gym at William James Middle School, improving campus lighting at Statesboro High and fixing the Transitions Learning Center gym so it can be used for physical education.
The next five items were improving the TLC lunchroom, enclosing a walkway to the gym at Stilson Elementary School, expanding the lunchroom serving area at WJMS, adding a new entrance lane and more parking at Brooklet Elementary and buying land for a possible WJMS sports complex.
However, school system officials emphasize that this is not necessarily the order in which the projects would be pursued. Costs and the availability of other funding are also factors. All will be subject to Board of Education approval, and the ESPLOST resolution is expected to cite categories of projects, not specifics.
“These are recommendations from the committee, so these are the type projects that we would look at it and then the projects we would do, but then the board would decide once with get into it, if it passes, what order,” Wagner said.
Before Thursday evening’s Board of Education meeting, an ESPLOST resolution was listed on the agenda for a vote. But Superintendent Wilson reported that the resolution wasn’t ready, and the board removed it from the agenda at his request.
Resolution in July
After proposed changes and questions at the most recent committee meeting, the resolution was sent back to the school board’s bond counsel, a law firm that handles public bond financing, for revision, Wilson said. Authority to finance projects by issuing bonds in advance of revenue is usually included with a SPLOST referendum.
The resolution will probably be ready for the board’s approval July 13, Wilson said. On the committee’s timeline, that was already the date predicted for action on the resolution and a notice of the election.
Committee members are expected to shift to a new role, launching a campaign for the ESPLOST. School system employees can provide factual information on the projects and referendum, but a state ethics law prohibits them from campaigning for its passage.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.