The Cherokee Tribune article, "SPLOST and a snowballing school debt," published Sunday is misleading on many key issues, which is disappointing given the voluminous detailed information requested by the Tribune over the past month and provided it by the School District.
From the headline and first paragraph on, this article portrays the situation as one the community was not made aware of a decade ago and one where the school board is unaware of the economic conditions and unresponsive to them, which all is far from accurate.
The 2000-01 Blue Ribbon Committee, which included many of the county's most influential and knowledgeable leaders, identified $500 million in critical facility and technology needs and that a plan using an Ed-SPLOST and bonds to be approved in 2001, and renewed in 2006 and 2011, would be the most efficient way to raise and repay the needed capital. Through sales tax, the cost of facilities that will serve this community for 40-plus years are not borne solely by current property owners, but by everyone who shops here now and in the future. The Tribune's description of the system of using bond revenue for raising capital for capital outlay and sales tax collection for debt repayment as an "imbalance" is misleading, as this was the model proposed by the committee and adopted by the school board.
It was made clear by the committee, school board and superintendent that it would take significant time to repay $500 million in bonds and this was reported in local media including the Tribune. Just as the public was made aware up front of the long-term project in which the community was embarking, they have been reminded about it through the 2006 Ed-SPLOST renewal effort, media reports and monthly public presentations at school board meetings of capital outlay budgets and sales tax collection reports.
Contradictory to the Tribune article, when Ed-SPLOST collections began to slow due to the economic downturn and its impact on consumer spending, the School Board reacted. Based on monthly Ed-SPLOST collections reports from the school district finance department, the superintendent recommended postponement of numerous capital outlay projects amounting to more than $100 million and reducing bond issuance plans by $160 million; and these recommendations were adopted by the school board.
Also, the Tribune is in error in alleging the school board has had no plan on how to pay off its bonded indebtedness. As outlined to the Tribune reporter, the school district has made all of its debt payments on time and will continue to do so - whether by using Ed-SPLOST revenues or through raising the bond millage rate. This is a plan all voters were made aware of from the start and will continue to be made aware of, as guaranteeing payment of the debt through 1. SPLOST and 2. Property taxes, if needed, are part of the referendum language, a point also made to the Tribune reporter.
The comparison of the Cherokee County government SPLOST to that of the school district by the Tribune also is misleading. While both use bonds and sales tax, the scope of the School District's long-term capital outlay plan is much greater than the county's, which used the bulk of its current SPLOST for one project: expansion of the county airport.
While State education funding "austerity" budget cuts and local property tax revenue declines negatively impacting the school district's operational budget included in the article are accurate, the section on "Budget woes" omits important factors related to school capital outlay and technology funding. The State Legislature continues to grossly underfund the impact of growth on local school districts - the school district would have to bank its annual shares of state entitlement and fast-growth funding for several years just to have enough money to build one elementary school; and no state funding is provided to buy land on which to build schools or the technology with which to equip them.
The Tribune article also glosses over the extraordinary impact the Ed-SPLOST has made to address student growth, despite significant information on this topic being provided to the Tribune at its request. Ed-SPLOST revenues collected since 1998 and the associated bonds have been used to fund construction of 12 elementary schools, four middle schools and new high schools; major additions and renovations to five elementary schools and three high schools; the renovation of historic Canton High School; construction of new facilities for school district education, food, technology and transport services; outfitting all new schools and offices with technology, as well as retrofitting all existing schools and offices with technology and training teachers and staff to effectively use it; making miscellaneous repairs and renovations to facilities; purchasing land needed for new and replacement schools and facilities; as well as retiring $89 million of bonded indebtedness and interest.
The 2011 Ed-SPLOST renewal and associated bonds would fund: Teasley Middle School replacement; Dean Rusk Middle School replacement; $40 million for technology upgrades and training; new softball field and field house at Cherokee High School; new school buses; sewer lines for Hickory Flat schools; parent entrances for Boston, Carmel and Holly Springs elementary schools; miscellaneous renovations/replacements; and continued reduction of bonded indebtedness.
Another major issue missed was continued enrollment growth over the decade the Ed-SPLOST has been in place - not just the one-year growth mentioned by the Tribune. The district has seen student population soar to 38,567 as of last Friday from 25,233 on the first day of classes in 2000. That growth is continuing its cycle through local schools, as evidenced by the increasing issue of overcrowding in middle and high schools that the 2011 Ed-SPLOST renewal would address through the construction of new middle schools and the subsequent use of the former middle school buildings for ninth-grade centers and/or other high school needs.
It also should be noted, while the reporter points out that comments from Commissioner Harry Johnston came via email, he fails to mention all the comments attributed to me, as well as the majority of the data in the story including the calculation of the millage rate, were provided by school staff in response to his emailed requests for information. This omission is especially grievous when it comes to the reporter's statement that I "simply" said "no" when asked about alternative plans if the SPLOST didn't pass. In reality, the "yes"-or-"no" question posed by the reporter via email to staff was whether the Blue Ribbon Committee had proposed an alternative plan; and the Staff's accurate answer to this was "No."
Dr. Frank R. Petruzielo
Superintendent of Schools
Cherokee County School District