“It’s actually been very quiet and, normally, quiet in my history has been good,” said Cobb Superintendent Michael Hinojosa.
Hinojosa’s deputy superintendent of operations, Chris Ragsdale, said it could be attributed to how well the district has kept the public informed of the process for the special purpose local option sales tax.
“We had the notebook in every draft form posted on the website, so those who normally would have questions about the notebook have had access to it from day one,” Ragsdale said.
Cobb’s $717.8 million list includes a $39.9 million rebuild at Walton High School, two replacement elementary schools for $23.3 million each, a $29.8 million career academy, $29.9 million Osborne High School rebuild and an east Cobb area middle school replacement for a ticket price of $29.1 million.
One person who has heard a lot from the community, though, is east Cobb school board member Scott Sweeney.
He’s participated in many meetings with residents, both who favor and oppose the initiative.
While he seems to get quite a bit of support from members of his community, there has been a lot of opposition, specifically with the lack of details about the location of the recommended career academy and replacement elementary schools.
As for the career academy, Sweeney said the district could take several routes as to how it could be built.
Sweeney said they could construct a pocket academy where high schools operate a career academy; a stand-alone academy, which is a centrally located facility; or a satellite academy, which is located at a few or more host sites.
“Feedback from many sources, including, but not limited to, school administration, community members, institutions of higher learning and the board of education, will be taken into account prior to selecting any of the above options,” he said.
As for the elementary schools, Sweeney said there are several candidates for this project, and it won’t go out to bid for at least another two to four years.
“Enrollment shifts may occur in that time, and additional needs may become apparent,” he said. “It is more prudent for the district to wait until the time for these projects arrives, and then work with the community to identify the two elementary schools in greatest need of replacement.”
Marietta Superintendent Emily Lembeck has been hosting similar informational meetings about that district’s $55.4 million project list but hasn’t had as great of a turnout.
“I think that (Marietta City voters) understand what SPLOST IV can do and what the project list is,” Lembeck said about the lack of response from city voters about the initiative.
Marietta’s list includes paying off $15.2 million in debt, $16 million in technology upgrades, $20 million toward construction, modifications, renovations and equipment and $2 million for transportation.
Close vote anticipated
Tom Cheater, the school board’s vice chair, said what he has heard from Marietta City voters has been favorable to SPLOST IV passing.
“They view it as a continuation of an existing tax, and one they feel has demonstrated value to the city and the county over the past five years,” he said.
He also said that while previous SPLOSTs have passed by wide margins, he anticipate the results on March 19 will be close.
“It’s important that everyone gets their voice heard when it comes to SPLOST IV,” Cheater said. “There is a lot of information available and voters should evaluate it carefully – on both sides.”
If the referendum is approved, Marietta City School Board Chair Randy Weiner said it would be the first time in quite a while that their district has been debt free.
And if it doesn’t pass?
“We still must pay off our old debt, and debt right now for the next five years would be $3 million each year,” Lembeck said. “Likewise, technology is a given and an expectation by students, families and educators and right now just to refurbish … that would be about $2.4 million a year.”
Hinojosa echoes that same concern. He said finding replacements for SPLOST funding would add some “significant challenges” to the county district’s operational budget.
“We already have a challenging budget facing an $80 million deficit, so that would add to that,” he said. “I don’t want to play the scare tactics, but it would create some additional challenges and we’d have to come up with some creative ways to deliver quality education.”
Trying to get their voices heard
And while board members and superintendents say they aren’t hearing much from the community, that doesn’t mean that community organizations and individuals aren’t voicing their opinions on the referendum any way they can.
Members of both the Georgia Tea Party and Cobb County Taxpayers Association have been very outspoken against the referendum.
“This is the first time I’ve ever directly opposed an e-SPLOST,” said Tom Maloy with the Georgia Tea Party.
He has been a Cobb resident for more than 40 years.
“SPLOSTs are supposed to be temporary, and they are getting a real feel of permanence,” Maloy said.
His organization argues that the project list is too vague, with few details on locations of big construction items like the career academy or the replacement elementary schools and that many projects are “as needed.”
Rallying on the Square
On Sunday afternoon, they will be joining forces with the Cobb Taxpayers Association to host a “Rock the E-SPLOST” rally on the Marietta Square to speak out about their opposition.
“One of the things that bothers me is that they’ve had a SPLOST in place for 15 consecutive years and they still talk about infrastructure needs that have not been met, like roofs leaking and inadequate HVAC, toilets that need to be repaired and clearly things that need to be taken care of but why weren’t they fixed in the past?” asked Lance Lamberton with the association.
They have invited former Cobb Commission Chair Bill Byrne and former Cobb School Facilities and Technology Committee chair Kimberley Euston to speak, and live music will be performed by Mark Augustyn of Atlanta.
On the flip side, there are several groups who support the initiative, including the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, United 4 Kids, FACE It Cobb and the District 9 PTSA.
Hinojosa said support from these entities shows that “we have something special here in Cobb County.”
“A lot of people realize that the Cobb County School District is the engine that drives a lot of people to Cobb County,” he said. “They have a vested interest in its success and they have stepped up and they understand it’s a bigger picture.”
John Loud of Loud Alarm Systems is co-sponsoring United 4 Kids with Jay Cunningham of Superior Plumbing.
He said there’s been far more support for the referendum than he anticipated.
They have used donations for the nonprofit to send out pamphlets, create television commercials, send mailers, run ads in local newspapers and buy yard signs.
“We should be proud to be in a county that in our notebook we want something like this,” Loud said about the career academy. “Those are the right solutions for many … we are looking to get developed skilled labor, kids are lost trying to figure out what they are doing and maybe this is a way they can get the training.”
JoEllen Smith, who is a member of the grassroots organization FACE It Cobb, said she’s in favor of SPLOST IV because it has support from those who would be affected by its passage the most – parents, students and teachers.
“They are supportive and enthusiastic about it passing,” she said. “I know the list may not be perfect, but perfect is the enemy of good. It’s never going to be perfect and, in the meantime, the roofs are still caving in and there’s mold on the walls.”