In 1990, I began what would be a 13-year tenure as a student in the Cherokee County School District. The district was small — my student ID had only four digits. I spent the first seven at Chapman Elementary and ultimately graduated from Woodstock High School in 2003.
I haven’t lived in Cherokee County since 2003 — I left well prepared for college in New York and graduate school at the University of Georgia. I continue, however, to take pride in both the county in which I was raised and the schools in which I began a lifetime of learning. I very much consider myself a stakeholder in CCSD.
I write today about three topics: 1) district growth, 2) assumption of debt; and 3) ESPLOST.
The influx of students in the mid-1990s was noticeable, even to me as a fourth-grader at Chapman. While many of my best friends (to this day) were a part of that influx, the county simply did not have the infrastructure or capacity to handle those students. I spent four of my seven elementary years in mobile units as a result of overnight growth.
The district was forced to respond immediately to accommodate students, before property tax revenues could be realized and before the EPLOST became an option for districts in 1996. Did the district assume debt? Yes. Was it necessary? Absolutely.
The overwhelming majority of parents of today’s students does not know, understand, or appreciate the state of CCSD in the mid-1990s.
Nearly 20 years later, growth has slowed, infrastructure has largely been able to respond, and the district continues to manage its debt responsibly and consistently.
Cherokee County residents have long been critical of the ESPLOST. This sales and use tax, approved by voters, lasts for five years at which point it is proposed for another vote. These funds are limited to capital expenditures and debt service and the measure is consistently (>94 percent) approved by voters in all 159 counties and benefitting all 180 school districts.
In Cherokee County, the most recent measure was approved in November 2011 (54 percent to 46 percent). This is substantially lower than the statewide average of 67 percent approval, indicative of its vulnerability. The measure passed nonetheless, and the district is able to export a portion of our tax base to non-Cherokee residents as they come to our county to spend money.
Most concerning about this referendum should be the lack of civic engagement. Only 9.7 percent of Cherokee residents voted.
Should the next ESPLOST referendum fail, presumably proposed in 2016, debt accrued to accommodate the explosive growth during my time will remain. The difference would be that the debt maintenance falls wholly on the taxpayers of the county through property taxation and other local sources. We won’t be able to export portions to non-Cherokee residents bringing sales tax dollars into Cherokee County.
In 2010 — the most recent data reported to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government — roughly 26 percent of the CCSD’s total revenue stemmed from property taxes and 5 percent was from ESPLOST funds. Any lost ESPLOST funds must be made up with alternative revenue streams and the likelihood of additional federal, state, or alternative sources is slim.
Further, over-reliance on any single source of revenue in an organization the size of CCSD is irresponsible. Revenue diversity is key to revenue stability.
The 20-year history of explosive growth, necessary responses demanding the immediate assumption of debt, and stable tax bases are significant concerns for all residents.
Questions can and should be asked. Unfortunately, scare tactics, rudimentary headlines, and enraging statistics presented out of context are being employed by some community groups to generate inflammatory and ill-informed responses — immature and irresponsible behavior.
My Cherokee County education laid the groundwork for critical and holistic thinking that so many back home seem to be lacking.
Tyler P Reinagel, Ph.D.