In the late 1990s, schools of children swam to a sea of trailers throughout an overcrowded district that was on accreditation probation.
Construction and technology coffers were empty, yet the “fish” kept migrating to this Southern metro county. Then, in 1997, came what Bing Crosby sang of, “Pennies from Heaven.” The Legislature allowed Cherokee and other school systems across the state to levy, upon voter approval, a 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, and the public overwhelmingly accepted it.
It was pay-as-you-go for the first five years, but the kids kept migrating and the school system needed more cash up front. It tasked a 30-member committee of Cherokee’s community leaders, including elected officials, business owners, educators and parents, with coming up with a solution to address the issue. The committee found more than $500 million in immediate needs that could only be funded by issuing bonds to feed the starving school system right away and using three, five-year cycles of SPLOSTs to pay off the bonds.
Voters on Tuesday will be asked to OK the third installment, which will span from 2012 through 2017. The referendum will be a packaged question, also asking residents whether the school system can issue up to an additional $138 million in bonds to help pay for proposed projects.
When the economy went south, there was not enough in SPLOST collections to cover the already-issued bonds. Therefore, the school board held off on issuing $160 million in authorized bonds and postponed more than $100 million in construction projects. However, even though school leaders scaled back, the situation still resulted in an escalating debt, now around $500 million.
But the system was between a rock and a hard place, and still is. While growth has slowed, it still occurs and with declining assistance from the General Assembly. The economic downturn and the housing market crash combined for a one-two punch, the latter of which being a decline in property taxes, which left even less funding on the local level.
So what can be done? Solutions — like those being sought by struggling families across the U.S. — are few and far between. Which is why if the school system has a glimmer of hope, those “Pennies from Heaven,” it should embrace and snatch it like any other father would do to support his family.
Therefore, it is prudent for voters to continue this tax for another five-year cycle, as proposed by the original committee.
It’s far-fetched to expect even the most acute minds in the county to be soothsayers. Nobody could’ve predicted the economic downturn.
And the “Pennies from Heaven” have been used appropriately and for the betterment of students. Dollars have not been poured down the drain and responsible spending is outlined in the district’s capital outlay plan.
If approved, the future projects slated to be funded via the SPLOST/bond referendum include a replacement Teasley Middle School; a Dean Rusk Middle School replacement facility; a new softball field and field house for Cherokee High School; new school buses; sewer lines for schools on the Hickory Flat campus; parent entrances for Boston, Carmel and Holly Springs elementary schools; $40 million in technology upgrades and training; and miscellaneous renovations and replacements.
District leaders have said that most, if not all, of the SPLOST collections from 2012 through 2017 will be used to pay down past bond debt, and the bonds issued will be used for the construction projects.
In addition to proper past spending, school leaders have continuously stated that denial of another five-year SPLOST will equate to a 20 percent increase in property taxes in order to make debt payments. Cherokee County currently has one of the lowest property tax rates in the state, which is why so many flock to this area.
Voting “yes” for the SPLOST on Tuesday assures progress and eliminates reverting back to the days when Cherokee was not was it is now, a thriving, top-notch educational system.