Oconee County Schools’ gambit of seeking early approval of a new Education Local Option Sales Tax in a low-key election paid big dividends on Tuesday with 83.6 percent of the 1,924 voters who cast a ballot approving.
Turnout was the lowest ever for any of the six Education Local Option Sales Tax referendums going back to 1997 and involved the second smallest number of voters.
The 83.6 percent approval vote, however, was 13.4 percentage points higher than the vote in 2016 for the current sales tax and was exceeded in support only by the first two votes on the 1 percent tax in 1997 and 2002.
The referendum also included authorization for the Board of Education to issue general obligation bonds for up to $42,950,000 to finance construction of a list of new capital projects, including a third middle school in the far northwest of the county.
The campaign for the referendum centered on communication to school employees and messages sent by Superintendent Jason Branch and school principals to parents of enrolled students.
Approval was highest among the 1,254 voters who cast a ballot in-person in advanced voting (87.0 percent), and lowest among the 35 voters who cast an absentee ballot (68.6 percent).
The 635 voters who went to the polls on election day (only 33.0 percent of the total voters) gave the referendum a 77.8 percent approval.
What ELOST Will Provide
At the request of Superintendent Branch, the Board of Education, without public discussion, agreed to put the issue on the ballot more than a year before the current ELOST expires. No other county issue was on the ballot on Tuesday.
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The rationale offered is that interest rates are low and construction costs will only increase.
The plan is to sell bonds as soon as the referendum is approved even though revenue will not begin to be collected until the end of 2022.
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 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.
The new middle school, to be located next door to the new Dove Creek Elementary School off Hog Mountain Road, is scheduled to open in the Fall of 2023.
School officials said no schedule exits for any of the other projects.
Oconee County has 30,516 active voters, so the 1,609 voting in favor of the new tax were only 5.3 percent of those eligible to cast a ballot.
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The 315 who voted against the tax represented 1.0 percent of the registered voters.
One person who cast a ballot on election day did not vote either for or against the tax, which continues the current tax rate of 1 percent on sales in the county.
The vast majority of the county’s voters expressed their opinions by not voting.
Turnout was highest (8.4 percent) in High Shoals Precinct and lowest in Farmington Precinct (4.9 percent) and Marswood Hall Precinct (4.9 percent).
East Oconee Precinct was just higher with 5.0 percent turnout. The county has 12 precincts.
The tax received its greatest support in Dark Corner, where the new middle school will be located, with 90.6 percent approval.
Approval was less than 80 percent in Farmington, Colham Ferry, Bogart, North Oconee, and Civic Center.