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Commentary: Keeping special sales tax in place is the best way to keep education strong

POSTED: March 6, 2011 12:30 a.m.
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Lee Hemmer, co-chairman of Citizens for Better Education

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One penny. Yes, just one cent of each retail dollar spent in Gainesville/Hall County is all it takes to make a huge difference in the future education of our children. The Education SPLOST, a 1 percent sales tax to benefit both our city and county schools, is up for renewal. It is the only item on the ballot March 15. We need to go to the polls and vote for it.

The first Education SPLOST was passed in 1997, and our citizens have overwhelmingly passed it twice more since then - and what a difference it has made.

Since its original passage, the Education SPLOST has allowed the Hall County School System to build 10 new schools, add over 200 new classrooms, renovate numerous other school buildings, and prepare for future growth with the purchase of additional land sites.

In Gainesville City Schools, the Education SPLOST has funded construction of four schools and 75 new classrooms. Our children that attend Buford schools have also benefited as part of Buford is within Hall County. Their school system was able to build a fine arts facility, a new middle school, and additional classrooms.

Equally important, especially in these difficult economic times, bond debt has been paid down across the board in our local systems.

We needed the last three Education SPLOSTS and we need this new one just as much. Here's why: We are fortunate to have good schools and good leadership, but it is our responsibility to remain good stewards of our educational facilities by keeping them in sound condition and financially secure.

Significant renovations amounting to over $50 million are now required because many Hall County schools are upwards of 40 to 60 years old. These renovations include replacing or repairing leaky roofing systems and old heating and air conditioning systems that are non-working or non-efficient. Many electrical and plumbing systems need repair as well.

In Gainesville, the 75-year-old Fair Street School is in deplorable condition and will more than likely close if the new Education SPLOST does not pass. Renovations are also needed at several other Gainesville City Schools.

This next Education SPLOST will also address new school buses, library books, a bus depot, and over $15 million in new teaching technology. We'll also be relieved to see old bond debt, left over from the days before Education SPLOSTs, significantly paid down or paid off. In fact, Hall County Schools thankfully will be long-term debt-free for the first time in 50 years if voters approve this next SPLOST. Altogether, the continuation of the Education SPLOST will raise between $129 and $200 million for our children and schools.

I attended public school here, and I have children who also attend. Providing and maintaining state-of-the-art facilities is not only a concern for my family and the education of our children today, but also in looking ahead many years from now to the education of all the children of our community.

Gainesville and Hall County have the ingredients to continue thriving economically, and one chief reason so far has been our schools. In my business, I witness how our educational systems are scrutinized by industries and businesses looking to locate here. High-tech companies examine our school systems even more, and if we are to attract this highly desired new industry in the future, it is critical that we keep our educational facilities in top condition.

We are all very lucky to call Gainesville and Hall County home. This area has so many good things to offer. I thank our teachers and the leadership in our school systems for the quality education they provide to our children. Now let's properly maintain the school facilities that house our young folks and move forward with their future education by voting "YES" to continue the Education SPLOST for another five years.

Lee Hemmer, a sales associate with The Simpson Company, is co-chairman of Citizens for Better Education.



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