The sales tax Columbus voters approved three years ago to construct or improve Muscogee County School District facilities is generating less money than expected, putting at risk projects such as an athletics complex for systemwide use.
Through Dec. 17, the most recent date available, MCSD is at 88 percent of projected collections for that point, bringing in $81 million instead of the expected $92 million, according to the statistics officials shared with the citizens committee overseeing how the school district spends the money from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Columbus voters renewed the SPLOST, a 1 percent sales tax, in March 2015 by 54-46 percent. This SPLOST started July 1, 2015, and will last for five years or until $192,185,000 is collected for 24 capital projects.
If the collections continue to show a shortfall, MCSD superintendent David Lewis told the committee, “we’ll have to make some judicious recommendations to the board, and they’ll have to determine what projects would be either postponed until the next SPLOST or not funded from this SPLOST. But anything that was named specifically (in the referendum), we’re going to try to do that. Of course, our first priority is academics and safety and welfare and security and those things that are paramount.”
MCSD senior construction project manager Rexon Byrd told the committee the SPLOST shortfall might mean not enough money would be available for the $11 million systemwide athletics complex planned on the former Cusseta Road Elementary School property adjacent to the new Spencer High School, a $56 million SPLOST project scheduled to open in August.
“Funding being as it is,” Byrd said, “we don’t know if that one’s going to make it or not.”
The proposed athletics complex is the only project MCSD officials specified as being in jeopardy. On Feb. 16, the Ledger-Enquirer asked the district for the order in which the SPLOST projects are supposed to be completed. That information hasn’t yet been provided.
Why an athletics complex was proposed
Spending for the proposed athletics complex was budgeted three years ago to break down this way:
▪ $7.7 million to build a stadium with artificial turf, fieldhouses on both sides, a track and capacity for 4,000 fans, similar to Kinnett Stadium, adjacent to Shaw High School.
▪ $2 million for parking.
▪ $1 million for infrastructure.
▪ $300,000 to build an artificial turf soccer field.
Tennis courts “possibly” could be included, Byrd told the committee.
MCSD’s seven high schools with football teams play in the district-owned Kinnett Stadium and the city-owned A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium. If the district has a third stadium to play football, MCSD officials have said, it could eliminate or greatly reduce the number of Thursday night games, which totaled 11 in 2017.
Andre Lacy played football for Spencer High School and graduated in 1995. Now, he’s an engineer at NCR and has two sons playing football for Shaw High School. Four of Shaw’s 10 games during its 1-9 season in 2017 were on Thursday nights. That caused problems with homework and getting up on time for school the next day after coming home from a Thursday game past midnight, Lacy told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview Friday.
Visiting teams also are reluctant to play on a Thursday because of the late-night returns home before a school day. Plus, it means less revenue for Muscogee County schools because fewer visiting fans make the trip.
Another stadium with artificial turf would allow MCSD to use the field more often without worrying about ruining the grass. Another track would give the district a venue other than Kinnett to host meets. Another soccer field would enable the district to not rely on the city-owned Woodruff Farm Soccer Complex for its 32 high school teams (boys and girls, varsity and junior varsity).
As a result, combined with the upgrade at Kinnett, a new athletics complex would better equip Columbus to host more state and regional sporting events.
Lacy said south Columbus should have a football field as nice as the one in north Columbus.
“Trying to compete with all the Atlanta schools and all the big schools,” he said, “we need to have the same playing field or we’ll be left behind.”
Lacy, who voted to renew the SPLOST in 2015, added, “I’m very concerned. We should have the money to equip these kids. It should not be an issue.”
Committee chairwoman Meridith Jarrell told her fellow members, if this SPLOST doesn’t provide enough money to construct an athletics complex, “it will go automatically to the next SPLOST,” assuming the administration asks the school board to authorize putting such a referendum on a ballot -- and assuming Columbus voters approve it.
In a phone conversation Tuesday, the Ledger-Enquirer asked Lewis whether he would agree to an interview about what the slow collection of SPLOST revenue might mean for the MCSD projects.
“That’s too premature,” Lewis said. “That’s way too premature to talk about. We won’t know until the summer about where we are with that. … It’s not news. ... That would be really inappropriate to try and create a story about something that hasn’t been determined. It’s too early to determine.”
Lewis had left the SPLOST committee meeting for another commitment when Byrd said that the district might not receive enough money from this tax to construct the proposed athletics complex. Lewis told the Ledger-Enquirer that Byrd’s statement is “inappropriate because we haven’t made any decision.”
Looking at the revenue month-by-month, collections have been less than the expected average of $3.2 million in 27 of the 29 months since this SPLOST started. The shortfalls have ranged from the low of $185,005 in August 2017 to the high of $680,020 in February 2017. The two months when collections were more than the expected average came in January: a surplus of $236,202 in 2016 and a surplus of $41,066 in 2017.
Because this SPLOST will continue through July 2020, the revenue collection still has 2 1/2 years to pick up the pace.
“Things change,” Lewis told the committee. “For example, Fort Benning is now increasing their personnel, so that could prove to be a positive for sales tax in our area.”
MCSD’s previous SPLOSTS have a mixed history of generating the expected money:
▪ In 1997, 79 percent of the voters passed the SPLOST to fund projects totaling $188 million, including a new high school (Northside), new air conditioners and maintenance for school buildings. But a struggling economy meant the district collected only $140 million in that five-year period. And that meant two new schools (North Columbus Elementary and Veterans Memorial Middle) were deferred until the next SPLOST.
▪ In 2003, in the wake of those broken promises, the SPLOST referendum for $148 million in projects barely passed — by 280 votes. Among the projects were a new Rigdon Road Elementary School, a new elementary school (Eagle Ridge Academy) and a new Mildred L. Terry Public Library. Money also was set aside for a new MCSD headquarters building, which became controversial when the project expanded from the original $12.6 million to about $30 million, and approximately $1 million in seed money for an arts academy. The 2003 SPLOST reached its $148 million goal and, combined with other funding, gave MCSD $180 million to spend on capital projects.
▪ In 2009, voters approved renewing the SPLOST by 57 percent to 43 percent to fund a $223 million list of projects, including a new Carver High School, a new middle school (Aaron Cohn) and a new elementary school (Dorothy Height). But the sluggish recovery from the Great Recession produced a shortfall of approximately $40 million. As a result, in November 2012, the board approved interim superintendent John Phillips’ recommendation to eliminate $17.7 million worth of SPLOST projects and to defer $19.5 million more.
The board deferred four projects then: the arts academy that became Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts, the new gym at Fort Middle School for districtwide use, other new athletics facilities, and furniture and equipment. Those projects are on the 2015 SPLOST list.
Rainey-McCullers opened in August, a $36 million project with funding from the SPLOSTs approved in 2003, 2009 and 2015.
The new Fort gym, which was dedicated in September, is part of the $4.2 million budgeted for construction at Fort, where the project also includes remodeling the locker rooms and upgrading the school’s painting, flooring, wall base and kitchen hood.