Questions about decreasing enrollment, crowded high school classrooms and Carver High School created spirited debate during a Common Cause Columbus forum on a proposed 1 percent sales tax for school construction.
“We’re on a decrease in enrollment. We do not need taxation at this moment,” said Paul Olson, who is organizing opposition to a proposed Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for capital projects for schools in Muscogee County. He participated in a debate and question-and-answer session with Muscogee County School District Superintendent Susan Andrews at the Columbus Public Library on Thursday night.
If approved by voters, the 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.
Olson and others at the forum questioned the need for the tax, citing an enrollment decrease, poor academic performance at some schools and the weak economy.
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“We are in a deep recession … ” Olson said. “You do not need to self-impose during a recession. It just does not make common sense ladies and gentlemen.”
Andrews said the school district has decreased in enrollment since 2005 by about 900 students, but area schools are expecting an increase of about 4,300 students after the U.S. Army relocates the Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky., to Fort Benning. She said the system needs about 140 classrooms to accommodate those students.
Some at the forum asked why a new Carver High School was on the list of SPLOST projects, since the school is one of four high schools in the county that has not made adequate yearly progress for at least two years under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and is in “needs improvement” status.
Students at schools under needs improvement status have the option to transfer to better performing schools in the district. About 600 applied to transfer to Northside High and Hardaway High, the only schools eligible to accept No Child Left Behind transfers.
“The reason why we have overcrowding in Muscogee County is the failure and incompetency of schools on the south side, with kids moving to the north side,” Olson said.
Andrews said she believes Carver and the other high schools in needs improvement — Jordan, Kendrick and Spencer — can improve test scores and make AYP.
“I can tell you that poor children can learn and they can learn at a high level. But I can also tell you that poverty is a formidable foe,” she said.
Two Carver parents also stood up at the forum to defend the need for a new high school. Elizabeth Clark said the school had maintenance problems, citing a sewage pipe that broke in the school’s cafeteria last year.
Larry Marshall, PTSA president at Carver, said his daughter was one of the students who had to eat the auditorium while the sewage pipe was being fixed.
“I don’t agree with everything on the SPLOST, but I agree with enough,” he said. “I’m telling you Carver High School can’t afford to go another 10 to 15 years.”
“I agree with you,” Olson said.
“Then vote yes — not no!” Marshall said, earning applause and shouts of “Amen” from the audience.
Olson argued that the school district let Carver High fall into disrepair by not putting enough money into maintaining the building.
Marshall urged him to look to the future.
“Mr. Olson, today is today. I don’t live in the past,” Marshall said. “Today my child is at Carver High School. What are you going to do about it today?”