A video the Muscogee County School District sent principals this week to share with their staffs sparked questions during Thursday night’s public forum at Dorothy Height Elementary School.
About 50 folks attended superintendent David Lewis’ presentation in the school’s cafeteria. It was the 10th of 11 gatherings scheduled to explain his administration’s request to 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 March 13 in the City Services Center. That poll is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays as well as 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday.
One of the anonymous questions assistant superintendent Rebecca Braaten read aloud during Thursday’s forum asked Lewis to explain the 13-minute video, which is a shortened version of the SPLOST approximately 55-minute presentation he has been giving at the forums. The question asked, “Are staff being told how to vote?”
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“No, they are not being told how to vote,” Lewis said. “ It was done to help our faculty, actually for the teachers who could not make the forums.”
Lewis insisted the video isn’t campaign material.
“It’s strictly information, as we’ve had tonight,” he said. “It’s strictly about facts related to the SPLOST.”
The video is available on the school district’s website, Lewis said.
“In fact, some teachers have actually shared it with some of their parents,” he said, “and that’s fine too.”
It’s not fine with Muscogee County School Board members John Thomas of District 2 and Frank Myers of District 8, who are campaigning against the SPLOST. The Ledger-Enquirer asked Myers and Thomas, who didn’t attend the forum, for their reaction to Lewis’ explanation. Myers emailed a one-sentence joint statement: “The idea that Dr. Lewis has not been actively campaigning for passage of the SPLOST while using District resources is patently absurd.”
Dorothy Height principal Tammy Anderson told the Ledger-Enquirer that schools weren’t required to show the video.
“It was optional,” she said.
Anderson said she hasn’t shown the video to her teachers during a faculty meeting because “we had other training that we had to do.”
Asked whether she will, Anderson said, “I’m just leaving it up to everybody to form their own opinion.”
After the forum, Lewis said MCSD communications director Valerie Fuller emailed the video to the principals. Later Thursday night, the Ledger-Enquirer obtained a copy of that email, which gave the following instructions:
“Principals/Asst. Principals: Once you have shared/reviewed the 13 minute informational video with your staff, please notify your Region Chief.”
In a follow-up phone interview, Lewis explained that principals were required to make the video available, but it was optional how they did it, whether it was by forwarding the email or showing it in a meeting.
“We wanted to make sure all teachers and staff had access to the same factual information,” he said. “There was no expectation to require teachers to see it.”
The idea originated, Lewis said, after teachers requested help from the administration to “dispel some of the misrepresentations and inaccurate information out there.”
As for what state law says about the issue, school district attorney Greg Ellington wasn’t reached for comment Thursday night.
Here are other questions from the public and Lewis' answers during the forum:
Will the projects be prioritized?
“As you may recall, the referendum language does not allow us to prioritize prior to the vote,” Lewis said. “However, obviously, once the vote is taken and if we are successful, there are some projects we would start right away. Obviously, for example, building a major building like Spencer, it’s going to take the majority of the time, doing all the environmental studies and soil, doing all the architectural work. That’s going to take a protracted amount of time, so we’ll start fairly quickly on those projects. Other projects will start and commence almost immediately but will span the full five-year period, such as the replacement of buses. We will replace the ovens. We’ll start with the oldest first and move forward. We’ll be very systematic. We will tier. We will probably put them in phases, based on the things mentioned, and within those tiers, we’ll prioritize based on the sequencing of the projects and scope.”
Will the SPLOST increase utility bills?
“It’s only on retail sales,” Lewis said.
Will the free and reduced-price school meals be lost if the sales tax passes?
“Absolutely not,” Lewis said. “Whether you vote yes or vote no, it has absolutely nothing to do with eligibility for free or reduced lunch.”
Will the citizens advisory board hold public forums after the SPLOST has been approved?
“We will always have a SPLOST citizens committee to provide oversight over all SPLOST projects during that time period and beyond as necessary for bringing all the projects to fruition,” Lewis said.
Do you have a projected dollar amount that could be raised by increasing the millage rate over the same time period that the SPLOST would exist?
“No,” Lewis said. “I know we have about 1.37 mills (left under the 25-mill cap), and that would generate somewhere around $4 million, $4-6 million. Don’t hold me to that, but it’s somewhere in that neighborhood, I believe. So, extrapolated over five years, that would not be anywhere near the $192 million we would realize through the (sales tax) collection.”
Have contingency plans been developed if the SPLOST referendum doesn’t pass?
“A lot of it depends on what we see in terms of the budget coming from the state, which we won’t know until early April,” Lewis said. “It’s just like you would have to do at your home. You look at your budget and your needs and those that are emerging needs, and you start making decisions based on those needs. We do have to pass a balanced budget every year, so I don’t know what else to say about that.”
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.
REMAINING SPLOST FORUM
March 10: Columbus Public Library, 3000 Macon Road, 6 p.m.
Call the school district’s communications office at 706-748-2034 for more information.