Muscogee County School Board proposes redirection of SPLOST funds

Muscogee County School District interim superintendent John Phillips proposed Monday night eliminating and deferring millions of dollars worth of projects to make up a shortfall expected to be as much as $40 million in the $223,155,784 list voters approved to fund in 2009 with a 1 percent sales tax.

The $17,756,250 worth of projects Phillips recommends eliminating are:

$6,725,000 to renovate the 29th Street facility housing the shop program for the Academic Success Center.

$6,075,000 for a new adult education building on the Daniel Center site, the Manchester Expressway building which houses the Rose Hill program for students with disciplinary problems.

$4,956,250 for renovating Daniel to accommodate Academic Success.

These cuts would eliminate Academic Success, a program for about 200 secondary education students who struggled academically at regular school. Those students would be brought back to their home schools.

Phillips also recommends deferring $19,568,977 in the following projects:

$7,000,000 for a system-

wide gym at Fort Middle School.

$5,000,000 for technology.

$3,000,000 for a system-wide athletics facility.

$2,633,977 for furniture fixtures and equipment.

$1,000,000 for Jordan High's auditorium.

$935,000 for security equipment.

All of which would help preserve the arts academy project, now expected to cost about $30 million, Phillips said. He proposed building the facility for 500 students in grades 6-12 on MCSD property behind the Columbus Public Library and the city's service center and natatorium under construction. The former Columbus Square Mall site also is where the school district's main office is located on Macon Road in midtown.

The price for the arts academy has doubled in the past year. The figure was $15 million during the Nov. 21, 2011, meeting, when then-Superintendent Susan Andrews fell one vote short of approval for buying the former Bibb Mill site for $3.6 million to construct the arts academy.

Phillips said putting the arts academy in midtown makes sense because "we have the property, the culture, the close proximity, and it's neutrally sited."

With the sales tax collections lagging, a construction contract couldn't be signed until around July 2014, Phillips said.

Board members Norene Marvets, Beth Harris and Rob Varner expressed concern about the proposed size being trimmed from 700 to 500 students for the arts academy.

Marvets also questioned whether it is legal to alter the projects Muscogee County voters approved in a Sept. 15, 2009, referendum by a margin of 57 percent (8,116) to 43 percent (6,065). The 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for public education projects became effective Jan. 1, 2010, and will last five years. Muscogee County voters approved similar SPLOSTS for school projects in 1997 and 2003. The 1997 tax also came up short in collections; the 2003 tax brought in more money than expected.

Board attorney Jorge Vega said the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that the governing authority has discretion to make adjustments for SPLOST projects if circumstances change.

Phillips said the district is in a "crisis" as it tries to fulfill its educational and financial obligations.

"Listen with an open mind, understanding that everything on the list we started with in 2009 will not be done," he said. "It is impossible."

Varner praised Phillips and the administration for their work.

"I applaud you and your cabinet and staff," he said. "I haven't seen one thing on your list that I disagree with. I appreciate the hard work that you have done. It's well done and well thought out."

After the meeting, board chairwoman Cathy Williams said she also supports the proposal.

"We're trying to be very diligent in how we extend these precious resources," she said. "None of this is painless. Not everybody got everything they wanted. There are things in this list that are special to a lot of people, but these are tough decisions and tough times."

The board will discuss the SPLOST projects during its Nov. 13 work session and plans to vote on Phillips' proposal Nov. 19.