When he was told he had answered the last question at the last of 11 public forums over the past six weeks throughout the Muscogee County School District, superintendent David Lewis pumped his fist as if he had scored a touchdown.
And he left Tuesday night’s crowd of about 60 in the Columbus Public Library auditorium with this final message one week before the school district’s sales tax referendum will be decided: “Be informed, help inform others, and make sure everyone exercises their right.”
Lewis’ administration is requesting voters renew the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax that expired Dec. 31. The 1 percent sales tax would last for five years or until $192,185,000 is collected to pay for or help fund 24 capital projects.
March 17 is the special election day, when the county’s 27 voting precincts will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The early voting period started Feb. 23 and concludes Friday in the City Services Center. That poll also is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Unlike the previous 10 forums, no major news broke, no controversy erupted, and no opponents of the proposal appeared to be in attendance.
After the forum, the Ledger-Enquirer asked Lewis what he learned from the questions residents have posed.
“I learned that there was a lot of misinformation about the SPLOST that I just assumed people had known because we’ve done the SPLOST in past years,” he said. “Even in the schools, I found several times, maybe because people were new to our district, I found that people were not fully informed or not aware of what the SPLOST could and could not be used for.”
The money collected can be used for only capital projects, such as: school construction, addition or renovation; technology; new buses; furniture, fixtures and equipment. SPLOST money can’t be used for: day-to-day operating expenses; salaries and other personnel expenses; to offset a budget shortage; books and curriculum.
“Generally, I found that people who attended the forums really did come with an open mind to learn about it,” Lewis said. “In fact, at every one of them, I’ve had people come up and thank me for information we shared that was very factual and very specific, that they felt they had not heard before.”Lewis also has made his presentation to at least another “nine or 10” other groups around Columbus. “And they’re not done,” he said. “I’ve got a few more to go.”
The question that elicited the most revealing answer Tuesday night was whether the $2.4 million targeted for furniture, fixtures and equipment will include uniforms and equipment for student athletes, whose families sometimes must pay for all or part of those expenses.
“We are not talking about buying equipment like uniforms,” Lewis said. “That’s not a permitted SPLOST expense. But going back to what I said before, if we can use the capital dollars for other reasons, then that frees up more local dollars to do that. There will always be some expenditures by students, but we don’t expect them to buy every single piece of equipment.
“ We are, however, looking at some possibilities down the road of going into partnerships on some things that might be very lucrative for the school district and might defray a lot of those costs. I can’t go into detail right now, because we’re just in the initial discussions about that.”
Lewis added that he doesn’t know of any students who are prohibited from extracurricular activities because they can’t afford them.
“In fact,” he said, “I can tell you right here in this room, we have staff members, including myself and others, who have contributed to make sure students have band instruments, uniforms. We typically put things together to try and help the needs that we know are out there. We have a very generous school staff, both at the district and school-based level, to try to ensure if we know there’s a need, we address those needs, and we’ll continue to do so.”
Here are more questions from the public and the superintendent’s answers during Tuesday night’s forum:
If the SPLOST passes, will the building projects and facility improvements require additional hiring of teachers or staff?
“The fine arts school requires additional staff because it’s a new program,” Lewis said. “Obviously, the (new) Spencer (High School) would, for the most part, just be moving staff from the old Spencer to the new Spencer. And the autistic program, we would just simply, as I mentioned earlier, would be relocating people who would normally be driving between schools. They’d be based at a school facility. So, in that regard, those are the only differences.”
Will these new positions take away from currently funded classroom teacher positions so that the pupil-to-teacher ratio increases?
“No, we don’t perceive that at all,” Lewis said. “We’re building around our planning. We are here to ensure that we have quality programming at all of our schools, regardless. And that means that we want to make sure that we don’t have any schools that don’t have arts. We want to make sure that we don’t have any schools that don’t have the programming they want or need for their students. So that is not going to be a problem. But what I mentioned earlier is, with the citizens utilization review committee, they will be taking this time to make recommendations that will help us eventually look at how we can better utilize those facilities more efficiently, more effectively, and that will drive more dollars to other needs, whether it would be personnel, curriculum, whatever -- because, again, that frees up local dollars for those purposes.”
Can SPLOST money be used to return to block schedules in the high schools?
“They’re on a block schedule now,” Lewis said. “If you’re asking about the 4-by-4 block, no, because, again, we cannot use SPLOST dollars for personnel expenditures. As you may recall, before I ever got here (in July 2013 from Polk County, Fla.), it was decided we were going to move from a 4-by-4 block to a seven-period model. And when I came in, it was my responsibility to implement that. The savings, going from eight periods to seven periods, equated to about $4.2 million at just the high schools alone. Altogether, between middle school and high school, we made adjustments that yielded us 8-point-something million dollars out of a $12 million deficit (the district was) facing at the time.”
Are the buildings safe from tornados and other dangerous weather?
“All of our buildings are built to the highest standards of integrity in terms of code requirements for wind, storms and tornados and that kind of thing," Lewis said. "So, yes, based on the codes that are required.”
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.