But voter approval of the proposed SPLOST renewal is anything but a “given.” SPLOSTs are rarely easy “sells” to voters, even in the best of times. And these are far from the best of times, in terms of the local and national economy.
What was originally meant as a “special” tax designed to help fast-growing school systems keep up with growth by helping pay for the construction of new schools has gradually and subtly morphed into what many critics contend is a tax that the school board now sees as an entitlement of sorts. Even though enrollment in the Cobb system has been essentially at a standstill for the past half-decade or so, the board seems eager to see the tax renewed. Rather than funding new construction, SPLOST dollars increasingly are being used for routine maintenance and operation costs.
For example, Kim Euston, chairwoman of the board’s Facilities and Technology Review Committee, told her group at its meeting Monday that the district’s compliance and performance audit of SPLOST III spending found that $33 million in SPLOST III dollars had been used for routine painting. She has called for a forensic audit of the system’s SPLOST spending, in part to reassure residents that their tax dollars are being spent as promised.
“I think it is very important for the taxpayers to have full transparency with SPLOST,” she said. “We need to make sure that every project in the notebook is what is legal and that we’re doing everything that we can by what the definition of SPLOST is. …
More than 50 percent of the projects to be funded by SPLOST IV are maintenance-related, she said.
“A forensic audit could guide us more, not even for SPLOST IV but even take a deeper dive at SPLOST I, II and III and see how much was spent and were the projects correct,” she said.
Another SPLOST-related subject that came up at Monday’s meeting was Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa’s proposal to spend $60 million in SPLOST IV dollars to build a pair of “career-academies” for students not on a traditional college-oriented track.
That proposal now has been pared back to one such academy, thereby freeing some $30 million that could be spent on items meant to appeal to various targeted constituencies in hopes they would vote for the SPLOST, much the same way that SPLOST III included funding to install artificial turf on numerous local football fields. There’s also talk of dropping the career academies idea altogether and performing their functions at existing schools, rather than adding additional buildings that must be maintained and operated — not a bad idea. But watch and see if that additional $30 million that would be freed up is used instead for board members’ pet projects to sweeten the deal for various constituencies.
THE PUBLIC will get a look at the updated SPLOST IV project list when the “SPLOST notebook” is unveiled today at 4 p.m. We would encourage the board to take its time about the notebook, rather than rushing to set a March referendum date.
In addition to the considerations already mentioned, there are others:
— None of the current board members were on the board for the creation of prior SPLOST notebooks, and they face a steep uphill learning curve. And “selling” this SPLOST to voters is not going to be as easy as they think.
— Prior SPLOST referendums were “stand-alone” special elections featuring extraordinarily light turnouts that are easy for the board to manipulate. As one of Cobb’s largest employers, the votes of teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and their spouses are usually sufficient to assure passage. But the public has caught onto that game — and onto the $400,000 cost to taxpayers of holding a special election.
— Prior SPLOST elections were held before the anti-tax tea party had taken root. Many of its supporters can be counted on to fight another SPLOST referendum tooth and nail, just like they did last summer’s TSPLOST.
— And last — but certainly not least — there is so-called “SPLOST fatigue.” It’s a rare year that doesn’t see local voters being asked to approve an EPLOST or a county road SPLOST or, as in the case this summer, a region-wide transportation referendum, or TSPLOST. None of these “special purpose” taxes ever seem to go away, and local residents are getting tired of throwing the party.
The Cobb school board would be wise — and serve residents best — by remembering that content and true needs trump speed when it comes to this latest SPLOST proposal. This SPLOST is likely to be harder to pass than any of its predecessors. We’re all in support of our local public schools, and that’s why it’s crucial that if the board is determined to rely on another SPLOST, that it take its time, listen to the public and get its proposal just right before taking it to voters.