What have we learned from past SPLOSTs?

As supporters work to reestablish lost trust, opponents say the incomplete ’97, ’03 projects can’t be overlooked

spauff@ledger- enquirer.comSeptember 6, 2009 

As the Muscogee County School District prepares to ask for another 1 percent sales tax for school construction, talk about the district’s two previous sales tax campaigns is entering the dialogue.

Paul Olson, an opponent of the proposed Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, brought up concerns about the low revenue collections from the district’s first SPLOST in 1997 and the district’s spending of the monies from the 2003 SPLOST for the new administration building on Macon Road.

“Who lost in this? The taxpayers. That wasn’t the bill of goods that was sold to us. We were told one thing and they turn around and change the whole thing on us,” Olson said. “What’s the old saying? Fool me once, it’s my fault. Fool me twice, it’s your fault. I’m telling you right now, you don’t need to be fooled twice.”

If approved by voters, the 2009 SPLOST would last five years or until the district collects $223 million to complete a variety of capital projects. The projects include five new schools — a new Carver High, a middle school, two elementary schools and a fine arts academy — additions to Northside High and Richards Middle, and athletics and technology upgrades.

The first SPLOST

The school district gained the option to ask for a SPLOST in 1996, after the Georgia Legislature approved an amendment giving local school boards the power to ask voters to approve a 1 percent sales tax for capital improvements.

Muscogee County School District asked for its first SPLOST in 1997. The project list totaled about $188 million and included 52 projects, including the construction of Northside High School, new air conditioners and maintenance for aging school buildings.

“Almost every one of our schools had roofs leaking,” said Guy Sims, who was superintendent during the 1997 tax campaign. The school district previously had tried to pass a bond referendum to pay for the projects, but it failed.

“We need to get roofs and get the facilities back in shape,” Sims said. “This was also a time when we were building gymnasiums for the elementary schools.”

The challenge for the school district in 1997 was that a SPLOST for schools was a brand new idea, he said.

“This was the first-time a one cent sales tax was available to schools,” Sims said.

The 1997 SPLOST passed, with 79 percent of voters voting for the tax.

However, an economic downturn slowed revenue collections, and the school district only collected $140 million over the five-year period and had to take two new schools off the project list — North Columbus Elementary and Veterans Memorial Middle School. The rest of the projects on the list were completed by November 2007.

North Columbus Elementary and Veterans Memorial Middle were added to the project list for the school district’s next proposed SPLOST in 2003.

The second SPLOST

The project list for the 2003 sales tax totaled $148 million and also included money for a new Ridgon Road Elementary School, another new elementary school, now Eagle Ridge Academy and a new Mildred Terry Library. There also was $12.6 million set aside for a new administration building and about $1,160,000 in seed money for a performing arts academy.

The tax referendum barely passed, 11,538 to 11,258, a difference of 280 votes.

Fife Whiteside, who was on the school board during the 2003 tax effort, said the campaign lasted longer — about six months — and the project list was less defined than the 2009 SPLOST’s list of buildings. There also was a lack of trust in the school district and the school board, he said.

“Dr. Andrews has worked very hard to deal with the trust issue and the school board has stayed out of the way, with a couple of exceptions,” Whiteside said of the district’s current superintendent, Susan Andrews.

The school district held nine public forums on the 2009 projects before formally deciding to ask for a referendum. The ballot mentions specific projects on the list, including Carver High, the performing arts academy and the additions to Richards and Northside.

“There is a much higher level of openness and transparency,” Whiteside said.

Sims, who spoke at a Hardaway High School PTA meeting recently in support of the proposed SPLOST, said transparency in promoting the tax is critical to getting support.

“Make sure that everyone understands what the purpose is, why the tax is critical,” he said. “Make sure people understand how it benefits them.”

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