We’ve heard plenty about “SPLOST fatigue,” and to be sure, it seems like one SPLOST referendum is scarcely finished before another is being ballyhooed. Yes, the state Legislature is considering (although our understanding is it won’t pass this year) a bill allowing for “split penny SPLOSTS” that would reduce the number and frequency of SPLOST referendums. But that reform will not come soon enough to avoid the need for Tuesday’s vote.
In addition, the state has cut deeply into school funding during the Great Recession. The Cobb system has lost a cumulative $353 million from the state since 2003 and the Marietta system nearly $27 million. And partly as a result the Cobb system is looking at an $80 million budget shortfall for FY ’14.
TAX INCREASES are a tough sell in the current political and economic environment. But this is a not a tax increase. Rather, it’s a continuation of an existing tax. Moreover, it’s a tax that local residents in their wisdom have passed three times before, and which has paid untold dividends for the two local systems. Those earlier SPLOSTs have paid for construction of 22 schools, 2,372 classrooms, hundreds of maintenance projects, eliminated 550 “portable classrooms” (i.e. trailers) and purchased more than 46,000 computers to replace older computers.
Of equal or even greater importance, those earlier SPLOSTs have left the Cobb system debt-free and have the Marietta system poised to also be debt free. What that means is that revenue from earlier SPLOSTs was used to pay off $184 million in Cobb bond debt and $53.8 million in Marietta bond debt, leaving the Cobb system (and hopefully soon the Marietta system) able to pay cash rather than borrow money for capital improvements. It means that local taxpayers will see all of the revenue from the SPLOST go toward its intended uses, rather than seeing millions diverted to bankers and bond attorneys. Even in an era of historically low interest rates, being debt-free is paying off in spades for local taxpayers. And it will save them even more once the economy turns around and interest rates start heading north once again.
IF PASSED, SPLOST IV will be levied for five years and bring in a projected $717.8 million for the county school system and $55.4 million for the Marietta School System.
In light of Cobb’s geographic position astride three interstate highways and the status of its malls as “destination shopping,” it’s reasonable to expect a disproportionate share of the tax would be paid by non-county residents.
Unlike last summer’s failed transportation SPLOST that was deceptively marketed and would have resulted in barely perceptible congestion relief had it passed, the Ed-SPLOST the county will be voting on will have easily measurable benefits. Earlier SPLOSTs were geared toward building schools to keep up with the explosive growth of the 1990s and early 2000s. SPLOST III and now SPLOST IV are focused more on renovating school facilities of earlier decades to extend their usefulness and give them more vitality.
Replacements would be built for Walton and Osborne high schools and an as-yet undetermined middle school and two elementary schools. A high-school career academy would be built too. After all, not every student is cut out for college — and frankly, we all know plumbers and mechanics and so forth who never lack for work; and students with college degrees who can’t seem to find a job.
Among the plans the Marietta system has for its SPLOST revenues would be wiping out the remaining $3 million in bond debt for the construction of the new theater at Marietta High School; paying off all the system’s remaining bonded indebtedness; and $5 million in upgrades to historic Northcutt Stadium, where the Marietta High Blue Devils play their home games.
The SPLOST would also help the two systems pay for new textbooks, school buses, security fences and surveillance cameras. (State law prohibits SPLOST funds from being used for salaries.) And SPLOST revenues would be used to keep the computers and related infrastructure current. As Marietta Superintendent Dr. Emily Lembeck put it, “Classroom computers used to be a ‘want,’ then they were a frill, but now they’re an expectation in the minds of students and parents.”
The list of projects to be funded by the SPLOST is not perfect; but then such lists never are. And this one is close enough to warrant your vote.
RAISING PROPERTY TAXES to fund local education is not a choice, because the county is already just a whisker under the 20-mill cap set by the state. So voters have three options.
• They can reject the SPLOST, meaning that most if not all current and future improvements would have to be paid for by issuing bonds (and seeing a big chunk of the bond revenue stay with the bankers).
• They can do nothing — that is reject the SPLOST and also reject future bond referendums, and see the school systems quickly erode and drag local property values down with them.
• Or they can vote “Yes” for the SPLOST on March 19.
The best option is obvious — and we strongly encourage you to vote Yes.