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$30 million arts academy questioned as Muscogee County plans to close Academic Success Center

The books must be balanced.

Revenue from a five-year special purpose sales tax in Muscogee County again has fallen short of the cost of school projects voters approved -- an estimated $40 million short of $223,155,784.

A lackluster economy takes some of the blame, but the economy's luster was lost before local voters in 2009 approved the education sales tax 57.8 percent to 42.2 percent.

Now the school board must sift through its needs and check its choices against the promises it made under laws governing a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes.

One costly project raising questions is a fine arts academy, for which the school district once expected to spend $15 million, but now proposes twice that amount.

Meanwhile other projects are to be eliminated or put on hold. On Monday night, the board voted 5-4 to delay a decision on interim Superintendent John Phillips' proposal to deal with the shortfall this way:

Eliminate about $17.8 million by cutting $6.7 million to renovate the Academic Success Center's 29th Street shop building, $6 million for an adult education center and $5 million to renovate the Academic Success Center, both at the Manchester Expressway Daniel Center.

Delay funding a $7 million district gym at Fort Middle School, $5 million for technology, $3 million for district athletic facilities, $2.6 million for furniture and other equipment, $900,000 for security safeguards and $1 million to renovate Jordan High School's auditorium.

Those measures free up funds for the $30 million arts academy expected to be built on school district property near the Macon Road public education center.

Arts academy

The open-enrollment middle- and high-school arts academy has its fans and its critics. Springer Opera House Artistic Director Paul Pierce is both.

Pierce points out he has never said the district should not have a fine arts academy, an impression some got from his writing a newspaper piece advocating arts in all schools. He believes the academy's a good idea: "I'm for the fine arts academy. In fact, I think it's very exciting, and if it comes down to needing to raise money for it, I'll help."

But the board lets existing schools' art programs decline while planning this central facility, he said. Take Jordan's auditorium:

"Jordan High School has some serious needs in that auditorium. Their catwalks have almost been abandoned because they're too dangerous. Their lighting and sound systems are useless, and yet we're cutting the million-dollar renovation of the Jordan High School auditorium as part of the plan to fund the arts academy."

That creates this perception, he said: "It looks like we are creating an elite school at the expense of all the other arts programs."

School arts programs lately have relied on private contributions -- from the teachers who pay out of pocket for what they need, he said:

"Their budgets have either been slashed to almost nothing or nothing. We have band directors who are buying drumheads and reeds, and paying for instrument repair out of their own pockets. We have visual arts teachers who are buying the arts supplies out of their own pockets."

Cutting off-site catch-up

Talk of terminating the Academic Success Center, which serves students so far behind at their home schools they need help catching up to graduate, has fueled fear the board is serving the elite at others' expense.

The board is currently debating whether a program serving 200 students in grades 8-12 is worth $2 million a year.

At Monday's board meeting, local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter president Nate Sanderson objected to cutting the Academic Success Center. He said he hasn't heard a clear plan from the district for helping those students, nor has he heard why the arts school is needed more.

"I think the community should be made aware as to why it's important to have fine arts at the same time you're cutting the Academic Success Center," he said Wednesday. "The two do not, in my opinion, make sense. The attitude that they're using does not make sense. If you don't have enough money for Academic Success, how do you have enough money to have a fine arts center that has doubled in cost?"

He didn't see how the district would save money sending Academic Success Center students back to home schools.

"I'm not understanding how they're going to save money because it's still a cost, no matter where the kid is," he said.

Among those voting for Phillips' plan Monday was Cathy Williams, who is chairwoman of the school board. She said the fine arts and Academic Success Center are unrelated: "Really one doesn't have to do with the other one. If Academic Success were to stay, I think we'd still find a way to fund the arts program."

She said the board questioned the center's efficacy last year after seeing about six out of 10 students graduate. "That's not what I would call a huge success," Williams said.

Students falling behind can get the extra instruction they need at their home schools, without a separate facility, she said: "Part of the problem that we felt we were seeing with this low graduation rate was that students missed that traditional high school, and they became disillusioned."

She pointed to Carver and Spencer high schools, which have in-house programs for "credit recovery" work for students at risk.

Choice and consequence

Williams said building a fine arts academy quit being a choice Sept. 15, 2009. That's when 8,413 people voted "yes" for the school sales tax as 6,352 voted "no."

Having promised the arts academy on the ballot, the school board cannot by law turn back now, she said.

"There were only four things we listed in the language of the referendum," she said, referring to the new $40 million Carver High School, as well a new middle school, fresh information technology, and an arts academy.

As long as the district has money to build the arts academy, it has to, she said: "I think we would be in complete violation of the people's trust if we did not fulfill what we promised them that they voted for. As long as the receipts will cover the items articulated, you have to fund those first. I don't think we have a choice legally."

Columbus faced a similar issue when lawyers and politicians probed whether a 1999 school sales tax campaign promised voters a park at the Columbus Public Library. No park was on the ballot, but some tax proponents had mentioned one.

Plaintiffs who felt betrayed filed a lawsuit, claiming government leaders reneged. The issue eventually ended with a compromise, after years of maneuvering that jeopardized public trust.

Josh McKoon was an attorney on the plaintiffs' side. He said he believes Williams is right about the law.

The precedent

A similar issue was tested in the 2006 Georgia Supreme Court case of Johnstone v. Thompson, on appeal from Cobb County. The applicable state law right at its beginning states:

"The proceeds received from the tax authorized by this part shall be used exclusively for the purpose or purposes specified in the resolution or ordinance calling for imposition of the tax."

After Cobb County voters passed a sales tax, the school board decided to use $59 million in technology funds to buy every middle- and high-school student a laptop. Plaintiffs said that was not specified in the referendum. The Supreme Court agreed.

The court said Cobb could not use tax funds in a way it had not specified.

This would be a case of specifying how funds would be used and then not funding what was specified.

The board owes people who wanted a fine arts academy and campaigned for the 2009 sales tax, Williams said: "There were groups of people that helped sell that SPLOST, that spoke on behalf of that SPLOST, that were passionate about the performing arts academy."

Betraying that trust could foul future sales tax votes, just as complaints about the 1999 sales tax infected the school district's 2003 referendum, which passed by just 280 votes, 11,538 to 11,258.

Some opposed to the 2003 sales tax said the board failed to deliver all it had promised back in 1999.

"You've got to ask yourself what kind of damage is done to future SPLOST initiatives when you say, 'Well, yeah, that's what we said then, but things have changed,'" McKoon said.

The promise

Williams said local leaders' interest in an arts academy increased after touring the Northwest School of the Arts on an intercity visit to Charlotte, N.C.

"We talked to students who, if not for that program, probably would not be in school," she said. "We talked to a student who said that program saved his life. He was the student that the kids bullied and picked on and put in trash cans because he was, quote-unquote, 'different.' He was 'artistic.' He wasn't interested in athletics or debate. He wanted to dance. But he had no place where he felt comfortable in his own skin until he came to this school."

It was a view visitors got over and over from the students, she said, adding, "And these schools have 100 percent graduation rates."

She said Columbus' arts academy would not serve only the well-to-do. Its 500 students, to be admitted by application, would come from all over the district and all income levels, she said.

Preaching arts immersion to Paul Pierce is like baptizing a missionary.

He knows it by heart:

"The school district has actually done a fantastic job in talking about this arts academy by quoting all the basics: Graduation rates are higher, attendance is better, test scores improve, whenever children have a meaningful experience with the arts."

Why limit that to one school? "What we haven't gotten to is, if that's true for those 500 kids, why isn't it true for all kids?" he asked. "I don't get that."