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Local school systems consider SPLOST renewal
Current 1-cent tax expires in 2013
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School leaders in Hall and Gainesville systems are exploring the possibility of extending a sales tax for education.

The 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax provides funding for a variety of projects including upgrades on and construction of school facilities.

Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said the current SPLOST, approved about four years ago, is set to expire in 2013, so a vote must be taken before then on the renewal.

“One of the advantages of having the referendum early is we can pre-fund bonds and get money up front for the penny sales tax that is collected at a later date,” Schofield said. “That would come in great for Gainesville City, which has dramatic needs at their facilities.”

State law requires that in order to bring the issue to a vote, every district within the county’s boundaries must sign on, Schofield said. The Hall, Buford and Gainesville systems have agreed to work together on the measure, which would extend SPLOST funding for five years.

School officials are looking at March or November 2011 for a vote.

Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said SPLOST money covers many projects that in some cases would likely take decades to fund. Certain facilities in the city are reaching 50 to 70 years of age, and several are at capacity or overcrowded.

“Gainesville City and any schools in Northeast Georgia have experienced rampant growth of about 20 percent per year up until the last two years. Now it’s 7 percent each year. We’re at capacity at every school but particularly at the elementary grades,” Dyer said.

Because enrollment growth has slowed, Dyer said a SPLOST renewal would enable the district to repair its older buildings, such as Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy and a portion of Gainesville High School, among others. There would also be plans to relieve crowding, she said.

The district’s greatest priority is Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School, built in 1937. While there have been facility renovations to meet growth, no significant funding has been used to address the school’s infrastructure, Dyer said.

The building is also used as a community center.

Dyer said inspectors found major concerns with the building, including plumbing and electrical problems.

“They said two more years is about as long as we can keep students in that building without addressing the needs there,” Dyer said.

Rather than replace the facility, Dyer said she hopes it can be refurbished.

“Having that site open as a center for the community and on valuable city property is essential to the school system,” she said.

Each of the school systems would name a list of projects for the ballot question. Gainesville expects to include technology, buses and facility upgrades.

In Hall County Schools, Schofield estimates there will be a need for $50 million worth of facility upgrades in the next five years. The money would be spent on electrical, heating and roofing work. Similar to Gainesville, some school buildings in Hall County are reaching 70 years.

There is also a need to keep up with new technology, he said.

School officials say it was a brighter economic time when the last SPLOST was approved. The SPLOST law was enacted by Georgia legislators in 1985 and authorizes a county tax of 1 percent on items subject to the state sales tax for funding capital projects. Hall County voters have approved five previous SPLOST referendums.

“We are talking to folks in the community and we understand we’re in an incredible wave of anti-tax feeling,” Schofield said.

The school systems considered increasing the millage rate to gain the funding, but were wary of the idea.

“We’re wary of increasing property taxes on citizens already struggling,” Schofield said.

He added that increasing millage rates or extending a sales tax are the only options available to the districts to gain money for their facility needs.

Though the state sets aside money for capital projects, which districts can apply for, Dyer said the district would still have to pass a SPLOST to access it. About 17 percent of the project costs would need to be matched by the Gainesville district.

“We don’t have that match at this time,” Dyer said. “Without SPLOST, we can’t draw money down from the state.”

Dyer said that if the measure were to fail in March, it could be placed on the ballot again in November. However, school officials are still trying to determine a time frame to move forward with the measure.
System staff plan to seek community input in the near future.