Education

How will Harris County pay for a new middle school? Voters will decide.

Where does each penny of your sales tax money go?

A new SPLOST could be on the budget in 2020. The current sales tax in Columbus totals 8% -- that's eight cents on each dollar spent. Here's a breakdown of where those eight pennies go.
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A new SPLOST could be on the budget in 2020. The current sales tax in Columbus totals 8% -- that's eight cents on each dollar spent. Here's a breakdown of where those eight pennies go.

For the sixth time in three decades, Harris County voters will be asked to approve a sales tax to help fund school projects. But for the first time, the request will come in the form of two questions on the ballot.

When county voters go to the polls Nov. 5, and during early voting Oct. 14 through Nov. 1, they will see the Harris County School District’s asking:

Whether to continue an existing 1% sales tax

Whether to try a different way of financing the projects, which would include the possibility of an increasing property taxes.

An Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, commonly called an ESPLOST, provides school districts a way to raise money for school improvements in addition to property taxes, loans (from a bond issue or a bank) and grants. ESPLOST money can be used for capital projects, such as construction, renovation, buses and technology, or to pay off debt, but it can’t be used for operating expenses, such as salaries.

ESPLOSTs last for five years or until the requested amount of money is collected, whichever comes first. They can be imposed only if voters approve them. And the voters in Harris County have approved them each of the five times they have been on the ballot since 1997.

Now, HCSD seeks support for a new list of projects — and a new way of funding them.

Although the current ESPLOST is scheduled to continue through December 2021, HCSD wants voters to approve the referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot so planning and construction can be done earlier, decreasing the amount of inflation in the project’s cost. This also would allow the sales tax to continue without interruption, so the new ESPLOST would go into effect in January 2022.

The proposed ESPLOST asks voters to approve continuing the 1% sales tax for five more years, from January 2022 through December 2026, or until $18 million is collected, whichever comes first. The money would help pay for projects designed to accommodate the county’s growth, with 423 homes under construction and 246 proposed:

  • A new middle school
  • 16 additional classrooms at the high school
  • Four additional classrooms at Creekside School (grades 5-6)
  • Bus purchases
  • Technology upgrades
  • Other unspecified capital projects, such as HVAC systems, kitchen equipment, flooring, painting, paving, grading and roofing.

Harris County Carver Middle School was built 64 years ago. The school district says many of the building’s systems and structures are at the end of their practical life spans and too often need repair and renovation. The facility also is difficult to secure and isn’t energy efficient, HCSD says.

Renovating the school isn’t a viable option because that cost, estimated between $15 million and $25 million, exceeds the amount of money the state would allocate for a renovation. HCSD also says it doesn’t have an adequate building to accommodate the roughly 800 students in grades 7-8 and staff during a renovation.

The Harris County Board of Education has proposed building a new middle school, costing an estimated $30 million to $35 million for approximately 1,000 students, on 22 acres behind the high school’s soccer fields at 8281 Georgia Highway 116. HCSD owns that land, and it already has utility connections and other infrastructure. It’s 1.5 miles away from the middle school’s current site at 184 Old College St.

The legalese of the ballot’s second question says, “Shall a total of up to $26,000,000 in aggregate principal amount of” the school district’s “general obligation debt be issued” for these projects?

Although it doesn’t mention anything about a possible property tax increase, HCSD assistant superintendent for business services Justin Finney told the approximately three dozen folks at Monday night’s public forum at the high school that’s what it could mean.

It could be a property tax increase of 1 mill. For example, the owner of a $100,000 home would pay an additional $40 per year in property taxes. Approving the second question would give the school board the authority to increase property taxes to pay off the long-term construction bonds.

If the actual cost of the projects end up being less than estimated, the board might not have to increase property taxes, HCSD spokeswoman Rachel Crumbley told the Ledger-Enquirer.

So if voters approve only the first question on the ballot, HCSD would use only ESPLOST money to pay the debt on the bond it would issue to finance these projects. It would take an estimated 20 years to pay the debt through multiple ESPLOSTs, according HCSD’s presentation.

But if voters also approve the second question on the ballot, HCSD also could use the 1 mill of property taxes to pay off that debt earlier with fewer years of interest. The combined money from the ESPLOST and property tax increase would allow the school district to pay the debt approximately five years earlier than if only ESPLOST money were used, according HCSD’s presentation.

Finney told the Ledger-Enquirer the second option could save between $5 million and $7 million and allow that money to be used for other purposes. The property tax millage rate would be rolled back if it is increased to pay off the bond when the debt is paid.

Being adjacent to each other would allow the middle school and high school to share some resources and facilities and to save money with more efficient bus routes. The proposed middle school would be two stories comprising 150,000 square feet and 61 classrooms and is modeled after one in Calhoun, Finney said.

HCSD has applied for state funding that is expected to total $9.4 million for these projects, Finney said.

If a new middle school is built, the old one could be used as a satellite campus for the high school, including Career, Technical and Agricultural Education, a College & Career Academy and a ninth-grade academy, Finney said.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.
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