By Nancy Badertscher
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
School officials in Atlanta, Decatur, and DeKalb and Fulton counties are gearing up to ask voters to extend their local education sales taxes for five more years.
Decatur's school board has the sales tax vote penciled in for November, and the other boards appear to be heading in that direction and moving to pick projects that could be priorities for the hundreds of millions of dollars likely to be raised.
The current SPLOSTs, which have gone to build new schools, renovate others and buy technology, are by law required to sunset next March, unless voters approve extensions. Collectively, they're expected to bring in about $1.5 billion.
One school board cannot hold a sales tax referendum without the other three because of overlapping boundaries under state law.
The DeKalb School Board is “on track for pursuing SPLOST IV” and “definitely shooting for November,” board Chairman Tom Bowen said Friday.
“The board will be working on the SPLOST priorities list over the next 45 days,” he said.
In Fulton, school board members are scheduled to receive an update Tuesday on the status of current special purpose local option sales tax (or SPLOST) projects and on a list of other needs, including major upgrades to the school system's technology, said Linda Schultz, board president.
She wouldn't say the goal is a November vote. “I don’t want to get ahead of the board,” Schultz said.
The Atlanta School Board in the spring authorized staff to talk to the other jurisdictions about the next SPLOST vote. Board members plan in June to vote on going forward.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been watching developments on the education SPLOST for months. He has told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he wants the city’s school board to forgo, or at least scale back, its SPLOST plans.
His rationale: Atlanta could lose ground against other cities in business recruitment with a 9 percent sales tax rate.
With the standard 1 cent tax for education, city residents pay 8 cents on a dollar in sales tax. Reed and others are pushing an extra 1 percent sales tax for regional transportation improvements and expect that referendum to be before voters next summer.
He has suggested that an 8.4 percent total sales tax would be palatable, with an education SPLOST set at 0.2 percent and 0.2 percent dedicated to arts funding.
Beverly Hall, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, has been adamant that the school system should pursue a full 1 percent SPLOST.
Barry Garner, Fulton County's director of registration and elections, said he'll need to know by Sept. 6 if officials want a SPLOST vote on the Nov. 8 ballot. The county doesn't have any elections set this year, but will be conducting city elections for Alpharetta, Milton, Roswell, Johns Creek, Hapeville, East Point, Union City and Fairburn, said Garner.
In Decatur, a potential list of SPLOST projects is on Tuesday’s school board agenda. A final list is slated for approval in June, said school system spokesman Bruce Roaden.
As districts ask voters to extend SPLOST, they plan to point to their successes.
Bowen said he's optimistic that DeKalb voters, who have been overwhelmingly supportive of education SPLOSTs in the past, will look favorably on this one, as well, "once we provide the current capital needs."
He said the board has, among other things, ended the current SPLOST program with an excess of funds and all projects completed or on track to completion.
In its current SPLOST program, Fulton County put off building four new schools after enrollment growth slowed. The system did move forward with land and design for the schools and ended up using money set aside for a Southside high school to rebuild Banneker High School.
Because of the economic downturn, the school system has needed fewer facilities, and construction costs have come in lower than expected. Still, with less money coming in than projected, SPLOST funds had to be scaled back for technology and transportation projects.