Hall and Gainesville school superintendents expressed concern this week that the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 could affect voter opinion on sales tax and bond referendum votes originally scheduled for March, as well as collections for the sales tax.
A special election on the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax and bond referendums to fund capital projects for schools was originally scheduled for March 24 and is now set for June 9.
“I think it would be pretty pollyannaish to say that what we’ve seen in the last three months is positive,” Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said. “We’ve seen a primary election delayed twice. We’ve experienced a worldwide pandemic, and now we’re in the midst of one of the greatest downturns in the shortest amount of time we’ve seen in this country since the Great Depression.”
Both Schofield and Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams say the vote, for which early voting begins May 18, will have drastic impacts on area schools.
Voter guide 2020: Learn what's on the ballot and find preview coverage of Hall County's contested race.
The E-SPLOST gives a penny for every dollar spent to fund capital projects for the Hall, Gainesville and Buford school systems. Residents will also vote on a bond referendum that would grant Hall County and Gainesville schools $258 million and $83 million in bonds respectively to be paid off over the next 20 years.
Schofield said Hall has not changed its projections for E-SPLOST collections in the coming fiscal year yet, as he believes there is simply not enough information to make an accurate guess on how much less will be spent in Hall County.
“Anybody who says they’ve got a crystal ball and here’s what’s going to happen to the economy over the next 12 to 18 months must be a whole lot smarter than anybody I know,” he said.
Schofield added that Hall would be operating based on projections made by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget going forward.
Williams said Gainesville would also be consulting both the University of North Georgia and the University of Georgia on their projections of local economics, adding that the school system would have a much better idea of how it will need to adjust its E-SPLOST spending plan as time goes on.
“The true testament, I believe, is going to be what just happened in April, when those collections come forward at the end of May,” he said.
The split nature of the E-SPLOST and bond referendum votes allows for one to pass without the other, but any outcome outside of both passing would be a difficult pill for school districts to swallow. Both Williams and Schofield said project funding would be based on the bond and E-SPLOST collection money working in tandem.
Williams said Gainesville hopes to spend its $83 million bond to complete planned projects and use E-SPLOST funds to pay the bond down over the next 20 years. The school system would need ⅔ of its initial projected E-SPLOST collections to pay off that bond over the allotted time period. The initial plans were conservative enough to where Williams said he is confident Gainesville will be able to pay off the bond even if E-SPLOST collections do take a significant hit.
Schofield said Hall plans to use primarily E-SPLOST funds to pay off its bond of $258 million if both votes are passed, and said any extra money needed would be collected through a bond reduction millage “which could be anywhere from nothing up to a maximum of $1 million a year” based on current projections.
And while Schofield and Williams are both confident that economic downturn will not prevent schools from carrying out all planned projects so long as the E-SPLOST and bond referendum are both passed, voter opinion on the issue is more of a mystery.
Williams said it would be naive to think that COVID-19 will not play a role in how people vote, but he hopes voters will be able to see a longer view of the situation. The most important project Gainesville plans to carry out is building a new middle school to reduce overcrowding at Gainesville Middle School. Losing the funding for the new school would put Gainesville in a difficult situation that Williams said he isn’t entirely sure how the school system will get out of.
“I do believe people will be thinking about things differently,” he said. “But I hope in the end they’ll realize what is best for our community. If they were to pull back and not have that passing, of course we would accept that decision, but it would require us to really come up with a vastly different plan B.”
If either the E-SPLOST or bond referendum votes were to fail, both systems would be put in tight spots moving forward.
“I can’t imagine where we would be had we not had SPLOST in the past, and I certainly hope that we can continue to have our voters say we have been wise stewards of the funds as we move forward,” Schofield sai.
Early voting had begun before the election was postponed to May and now June 9. Voters who did not vote in the March election will receive a ballot with the items that were on the ballot in March as well as general primary ballot items. Voters who cast their ballot in March will receive ballots with only the June 9 races.
Gainesville residents vote on the Gainesville referendum and Hall residents on the Hall referendum. The Hall referendum has been included in error on city ballots, but those votes will not be counted, elections officials have said.