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Local school systems put SPLOST on March ballot
Funds would be used to repair aging buildings
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Problems with aging and deteriorating school buildings and outstanding bond debt are among the reasons area school systems will ask voters for a sales tax extension.

Gainesville, Hall County and Buford schools systems voted Monday night to place the issue on the ballot March 15. By law, all three school boards must approve the measure for the March vote to be possible.

The five-year tax is expected to raise $120 million to $130 million to be divided among the three systems.

If approved, it will be the fourth time voters have approved the special tax for education.

Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said the current 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax is set to expire in 2012. The money pays for a variety of projects, including upgrades to school facilities.

Hall County estimates it would receive about $99 million of the funding, while Gainesville would collect about $23 million.

The funds are divided based on the district’s enrollment numbers.

Because part of Buford is in Hall County, that school system also would receive a share. The system negotiates that share with Hall and Gainesville, Dyer said.

In the agreement, Buford could receive a base amount of $3.8 million. However, if the collections from the new SPLOST are higher than the previous one, then it could earn more.

If SPLOST IV proceeds are 100 percent to 110 percent greater than SPLOST III, Buford would qualify for an additional $100,000, Dyer said. If proceeds are 120 percent or more, Buford would get an additional $300,000.

Dyer said the last three SPLOSTs have been approved by voters, but she expects the next vote will be tougher to secure due to the ailing economy.

“Unlike a private business, in hard economic times, they will shut down part of their business. But children keep coming, and we have to take them.” Dyer said. “And of eight schools, we have only three that don’t need significant work. And shutting a school down isn’t an option.”

Addressing facility needs is a prime focus for Gainesville and Hall County officials. In Hall, the money would be used to fund heating, roofing and electrical work. The remainder of the money would help pay debt and upgrade technology. In both systems, some school buildings are more than 50 years old.

Schofield explained there are only two ways districts can gain money for facility needs. One is to increase the millage rate, or property tax rate. The other is to appeal to taxpayers with a sales tax vote.

“That’s a decision the citizens of Hall County will have to answer: Which is more palatable? The third is to let schools go unattended to, but I don’t think that will be an option,” Schofield said.

Dyer said the SPLOST will allow Gainesville to apply for state dollars that are set aside for capital projects. About 17 percent to 20 percent of the project funds must be matched by the district, she said.

The deadline to apply for the state funds is in June, which is a big reason the school systems chose March for a vote, she said.

The first SPLOST was approved by voters 13 years ago. Schofield said the previous sales tax measures have allowed the district to quickly pay off school construction projects.

“During the explosive times of growth here in the last 13 years, every new school we’ve built was paid for with cash,” he said. “In the past, we used long-term bonds that we paid back with property tax receipts.”

In the Gainesville system, SPLOST III helped build Gainesville Middle School, and SPLOST IV could help build a new Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School.

“We’re meeting critical needs by renovating existing structures and building a new school. All of these needs are critical for the school system, and then the issue becomes we’ve got to do it, but how do you pay for it,” said David Syfan, Gainesville City Schools board chairman. “Of the educational SPLOST, raising the millage rate or issuing general obligation bonds, the E-SPLOST is by far the most reasonable. I feel like our community will recognize that and support us.”

Because of a dip in sales tax collections, Schofield predicts SPLOST IV would bring in about 4 percent to 8 percent less than previous SPLOSTs.

Schofield said the district will work hard to ensure voters have the information they need before the March vote.

If the measure fails to garner enough votes, the school systems will have another chance to place the issue to a vote in November.

Times staff writer Carolyn Crist contributed to this report.

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