Oconee County Schools plans to sell general obligation bonds before the middle of June and move forward with building and then opening a third middle school in the Fall of 2023 if voters approve the sales tax referendum on the March 16 ballot.
The issue is being put before the voters early–the current sales tax authorization does not expire until the end of 2022–in order to take advantage of low interest rates and to avoid increased costs due to inflation, according to school officials.
The tax referendum that voters are being asked to approve not only puts in place the collection of the tax but also authorizes the Oconee County Board of Education to issue the general obligation bonds for up to $42,950,000.
The tax itself does not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2023, and will run for five years, with a collection cap of $48.5 million.
In addition to the middle school, funds from the Education Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) will be used for additions to three elementary schools, renovations of the three additional elementary schools, and renovation of the system’s sole primary school.
Money for the tax also will be used to build a new Instructional Support Center on 6.67 acres on North Main Street in Watkinsville.
No cost estimates are available for any of the projects, according to school officials, and there is no time line for any of the projects other than the new middle school, which will be built adjacent to the new Dove Creek Elementary School in the far northwest of the county.
Early voting starts Monday on the referendum and will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through March 12 at the Civic Center, 2661 Hog Mountain Road, west of Butler’s Crossing. The school referendum is the sole issue on the ballot.
No voting will take place on Saturdays or Sundays. Absentee ballot requests are being handled through the Oconee County Office Of Elections and Registration.
More Project Details
Anisa Sullivan Jimenez, director of Communications for Oconee County Schools, said the next step after passage of the ELOST referendum is for school officials to “put out a Request for Proposals (RFPs) on the projects in order to obtain firm estimates” of the costs.
|Dove Creek Campus|
“The planned opening of Dove Creek Middle School is Fall 2023,” Jimenez said. “Regarding the rest of the projects, the timeline is not yet set.”
Jimenez said the tax referendum has been put to voters on March 16 to “enable the school system, upon passage, to take advantage of historically low interest rates and avoid inflation costs.”
Dove Creek Middle School will be built to accommodate 1,000 students, Jimenez said.
The classroom additions at Colham Ferry Elementary, High Shoals Elementary, and Malcom Bridge Elementary will standardize student capacity at the elementary schools at 750 students, she said.
The renovations at the other three elementary school and the primary school will include painting, flooring, and lighting, according to Jimenez.
Instructional Support Center
The Instructional Support Center will “include meeting space more appropriate for our growing school system and community,” Jimenez said.
Money from ELOST also will be used to purchase buses and for technology projects, including “The refresh and replacement of staff and student devices, as well as infrastructure upgrades,” according to Jimenez.
Even though the referendum language says funds will be used for “real and personal property for future school or administrative service facility sites,” Jimenez said “There are no plans for property purchase at this time.”
The Board purchased in 2009 the 6.67 acres on North Main Street just beyond that road’s intersection with Experiment Station Road for $900,000 from Charles and David Williams, but it has not used the property.
Administrative services are now spread around buildings at the end of School Street in Watkinsville.
Responding To Questions
I sent Superintendent Jason Branch an email message, copied to Board Chair Tom Odom, on Feb. 5, following a presentation by Jimenez to the Board about the ELOST referendum on Feb. 1.
“I am wondering if you would be interested in scheduling a Zoom interview to talk more about the projects, the time line, and the support center?” I asked.
I reminded Branch that I could not do an in-person interview for health reasons.
“Thanks for your interest in ELOST VI,” Branch wrote back on Feb. 8. “Please send your questions to Anisa and we will work with staff to answer as appropriate.”
On Feb. 10, I sent Jimenez a list of 11 questions, asking, among other things, for a time line of each of the projects, cost estimates of each of the projects, and details on each of the projects.
Jimenez provided me the written responses I have reported above on Feb. 11.
A New Tax
The documents the school system has created to promote what it calls ELOST VI incorrectly states that this is not “a new proposed tax.”
By law, the current ELOST took effect on Jan. 1, 2018, and is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2022.
Voters were given a list of project to be funded by that tax, including Dove Creek Elementary School and new classrooms at Oconee County High School, when they passed the referendum.
For the tax to continue, voters must approve a new tax, with a new set of capital projects. The money cannot be used for operations.
If voters do not approve the referendum, the sales tax rate in the county would go down from 7 percent to 6 percent at the end of 2022.
The new tax, if approved, will continue the rate at 7 percent and go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023. The tax runs for five years and then expires, requiring additional voter approval of a new tax, if one is proposed
Even though this will be a new tax, it is correct to say that the tax rate will be unchanged if approved by voters.
Timing Of Election
Superintendent Branch asked the Board of Education to put the issue on the ballot for March 16, and, without public discussion, the Board approved.
Votes on local option sales taxes are held on Special Election Dates set by the Secretary of State.
The Special Election Dates for 2021 are March 16, June 15, Sept. 21, and Nov. 2.
The current ELOST (V) was approved on Nov. 8, 2016, when turnout was high. That was 13 months before the then existing ELOST (IV) was to expire.
I asked Jimenez: “Why did the superintendent decide to recommend to the Board that it use the March 16 date rather than one of the other options for 2021?”
“Having ELOST VI on the regular ballot in March 2021 would enable the school system, upon passage, to take advantage of historically low interest rates and avoid inflation costs,” she responded.
“Why didn’t the superintendent recommend putting the issue on the ballot on Nov. 3 of 2020?” I asked.
“That date was not considered,” she wrote.
The estimated cost of holding the March 16 election, according to Justin Kirouac, Oconee County administrator, is $25,500. The county pays those costs.
By law, governments cannot put a defeated Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (including an Education Special Purpose Local Sales Tax, or ELOST) back on the ballot for a year.
|North Main Street Property On Left|
(Sign Is On North Edge Of Property)
“In the unlikely event that the issue should be turned down on March 16, it can come back in March of 2022,” I wrote to Jimenez. “What would be the effect of this loss of a year?”
“Building projects would be delayed, and interest rates and inflation costs are projected to increase,” she replied.
The current ELOST is the fifth approved by Oconee County voters.
The referendum approving the current tax was on the ballot in the general election of Nov. 8, 2016, when 20,458 voters cast a ballot, and 70.2 percent of the voters were in favor of the tax.
The vote for ELOST IV was in the off-year of November of 2011, and 71.4 percent of the 2,305 voters who went to the polls voted in favor.
Turnout on March 16 is likely to be very low, as nothing else is on the ballot across the county. Voters in the Oconee County section of Bogart, which cuts across county lines, also will be filling a seat on its Council.
When Jimenez, at Branch’s request, reviewed the materials being used to support the campaign for ELOST VI for the Board, she emphasized that those materials were going to be sent out to the teachers and staff at the schools.
“We’ll also be presenting information to schools,” she told the Board, “and they will be able to share information out as well,” she continued.
“And then we’ll also be providing some social media posts leading up to the actual date that ELOST will go up for a vote,” she said.
School officials actually are not allowed to campaign for the tax, but they can provide “information.”
Jimenez told me on Feb. 11 that Oconee County Schools has students from 5,183 households in the county.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the county has a total of 13,903 households, meaning that only about 37 percent of the households can be reached with a campaign that is limited to students.
That number would go up with faculty and staff included, but it leaves a lot of the voters with limited exposure to the informational materials.
That should produce low turnout and an electorate highly favorable to the tax.
|Sample Ballot (Click To Enlarge)|