Thursday, November 03, 2011

Oconee County Board of Education Chairman Explains Board Strategy On Sales Tax Vote

Responds to Criticism

Oconee County schools are behind other schools in the area in terms of technology, and passage of the Nov. 8 Education Special Purchase Local Option Sales Tax would help correct that.

Athletics are important to the development of the child, and the proposed athletic facilities at North Oconee High School that are part of the tax proposal will help meet the needs of students there.

The Oconee County Board of Education needs to borrow money now against future revenue from the proposed tax because state money could be available for the projects if the school system can demonstrate it has money in hand.

These are some of the arguments advanced by David Weeks, chairman of the Oconee County Board of Education, in the final days before voters decide whether to renew the one cent on the dollar sales tax to support education.

Weeks said he hopes voters “feel confident enough” in the school board and its “track record of what we have been able to do” to approve the new tax, formerly referred to as an Education Local Option Sales Tax, or ELOST.

As of Nov. 1, Oconee County had 20,734 active registered voters, but it is unlikely more than about 10 percent of them will cast ballots during early voting, which ends tomorrow, or on Tuesday.

Weeks met with me on Oct. 27 at the Barberitos restaurant he owns on Lumpkin Street in Athens to answer a series of questions I posed to him on the tax issue. The interview lasted 30 minutes.

I started by asking Weeks to explain the strategy the Board followed in approving general ballot language that does not list specific projects that the school system would be required to fund if the ballot passes.

“You want to craft your language gray enough, so, if a project pops up, in year three of the ELOST, that you didn’t think about,” you can do the project, he said.

In addition, he said, “we are very cognizant of making sure that the decisions we make now do not burden a school board down the line.”

The terms of Weeks and board members Mike Hunter and Wayne Bagley expire next year. The terms of Board members Kim Argo and Mark Thomas expire in 2014. The tax before voters would expire at the end of 2017.

Weeks has been chairman of the BOE since January of 2009 and a member of the Board since January of 2005.

“You write the language for the referendum gray,” Weeks said, “But when we’re talking projects, we are very black and white on the projects we feel are important.”

The Board of Education has said it intends to spend the tax money on what it calls four Tier 1 projects.

These are technology upgrades across all schools, costing $5.8 million, upgrades to Colham Ferry Elementary School, costing $2.7 million, construction of a field house and related athletic facilities at North Oconee High School at a cost of $2.2 million, and renovation of Oconee County High School at a cost of $8.8 million.

The tax, if approved, will run for five years or until $33 million is collected. The current SPLOST is generating a little less than $450,000 per month, or $5.4 million per year.

According to Randy Morrison, assistant superintendent for financial operations, the school system is making a conservative estimate that the tax will generate $25 million.

Weeks told me that he thinks Oconee County schools were far behind other area schools in terms of technology “five years ago” but “that we’ve caught up to some systems.”

“There’s still some school systems out that we’ve not been able to catch up to,” he said. “And we’re still constantly trying to upgrade because I would like to see our school be the model school system as far as technology goes.”

“We still have a lot of work to go on that,” he added, and the $5.8 million that is to be directed at technology upgrades will help.

Weeks said he could understand any concern about the BOE spending $2.2 million on athletic facilities at North Oconee High School in this time of austerity.

But he said those critics need to see the broader picture.

“I think schooling–I look at it as three prongs–academics, athletics and the arts,” Weeks said. “I think you have to be very wise in your funding, not to funnel everything to academics and then to leave the arts and athletics behind.”

Weeks said arts and athletics are “important to development of a child in today’s society.”

According to Weeks, North Oconee High School was opened in 2004 without adequate athletic facilities, and the BOE feels an obligation to provide students and parents there will facilities to correct that problem.

Weeks said he wants the students to be able to “be proud of what they have” in terms of athletic facilities.

“I think that just breeds success and makes them proud of their school and in turn hopefully is going to create that positive school spirit that is going to rub off into the academics,” he said.

The current tax does not expire until the end of 2012, but the BOE decided to seek renewal early and at the same time to ask voters to authorize issuance of $13.5 million in bonds so the system can borrow and start funding its list of projects early in 2012.

The Board followed a similar strategy after the current tax was passed in 2006, borrowing $24 million for a variety of school projects, including construction of High Shoals Elementary School, a new auxiliary gym at Oconee County High School, a new weight room at North Oconee High School, and permanent classrooms at schools around the county.

The school administration is estimating that it will be $1.6 million short of funds to pay off those bonds and expects to pay off that debt with revenue from the new tax, if voters approve it next week.

Weeks said the BOE scaled back the level of borrowing to be more cautious this time around.

“The last thing we want to do is over borrow and put ourselves in a situation of not being able to pay back our debts,” he said. “It is extremely important to us on the school board to be wise stewards of the funds we do have.”

By borrowing the $13.5 million even before the tax revenue for the new tax comes in, Weeks said, the school system can apply for about $1.4 million in state assistance for the upgrades to Oconee County High School and Colham Ferry Elementary School.

The school system must have the local funds in hand to obtain the state support, Weeks said.

He said it also is important to move quickly on the technology upgrades across the system.

Weeks also acknowledged that one expenditure made by the Board with money from the current tax has been viewed critically by many in the community.

The Board of Education voted late in 2009 to spend $900,000 to purchase 6.6 acres on North Main Street in downtown Watkinsville from Chuck and David Williams for a possible new administrative facility for the district.

According to the tax records, the property was valued at $632,844 at the time of purchase. Its current assessed value on the tax records is $721,524.

Weeks said that purchase of land for a central office had been on the list of desired projects “for years” and that the goal had been to create a facility that could be shared by the city of Watkinsville, Oconee County government and the school system.

“We just weren’t able to bring the three entities together to move forward on it,” Weeks said, so the Board decided to take action on its own.

Superintendent John Jackson asked the Board to purchase the land, Weeks said.

“We decided, when Dr. Jackson approached us about that land, we decided, even if we couldn’t join up with the county and with the city, we did have funds that were available,” Weeks said.

Weeks said there are no plans to spend money from the tax on the ballot on Nov. 8 on this project.

“We really don’t see that–if I look in the crystal ball–I don’t see a central office being built down there anywhere in the near future,” he said.

At the same time, Weeks acknowledged, a future Board might decide differently, particularly if more money comes in from the Nov. 8 tax than the $25 million projected.

“I wouldn’t want to paint a future school board into a corner by saying ‘I guarantee it’s not going to happen’ because I don’t think that is fair to do to future school boards,” Weeks said.

Weeks said the Board of Education will take a single vote on the decision to issue bonds but will vote on expenditures of money from the bonds and the tax generally on a project-by-project basis.

Voters just need to stay involved he said, and communicate to the Board about their concerns.

Any decisions are “going to be discussed in open session,” Weeks said. “There will be plenty of time for citizen input.”

I asked Weeks to make his best case to voters for approval of the tax.

“It is not a new tax,” he said. “It is something that we’ve had three times now.”

Weeks said voters also should realize people from outside the county are paying the tax as well.

“If you go out to Epps Bridge and look at the cars in the parking lots at Home Depot, Lowe’s and Wal-mart, those tags are from surrounding counties,” Weeks said. “Although Oconee County citizens do help fund this tax with their purchases in the county, we also have a lot of shoppers that come from surrounding counties that also are helping us fund this tax.”

“We do know that if the voters decide not to approve this tax, we’re going to have to drastically change the way that we do business,” he said.

“I don’t see any time in the near future us being able to raise the funds to complete even one of these projects,” Weeks said.


The full video of the interview with Weeks is on the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.


Xardox said...

Based on a highly unscientific poll (the people I talk to), the odds of this tax failing are pretty fair. The sports facilities, which can generate its own user fees, pretty much cans this one.

Pamela Lohr Hendrix said...

Georgia currently ranks 8th in the nation for educational capital spending yet consistently ranks 48th or 49th in educational results. Nice facilities do NOT equal top educational performance! We need to pause and re-examine our educational spending in this state.

Beanne said...

They don't really need a bond issue. At $5 million/year, they can fund each of the projects listed directly from the sales tax income. I don't see a reason we taxpayers should pay interest on bonds.