Three elementary schools. Two middle schools. One high school.
Those are the more visible projects expected to be paid for with the continuation of the Columbia County school system's special-purpose, local-option sales tax. And those projects are enough for us to easily recommend passage in Tuesday's referendum of the sales tax extension.
There is far more to continuing the penny tax than just school construction projects, but it's a little tough to plant a sign that says "Your Sales Tax Dollars at Work" in front of property-tax relief and retirement of bond debt.
Yet those projects are among the more important aspects of Georgia's SPLOST program for schools. Without the SPLOST, every Columbia County taxpayer's bill would be roughly 20 percent higher. That's the amount, before the first school SPLOST passage nearly 10 years ago, of property tax revenue that went to pay off money borrowed for school construction.
And why, some may ask, would the school system borrow money to build schools anyway? Why not pay as we go?
The reality is that neither Columbia County's school system, nor just about any growing school system, can collect property tax money fast enough, in large enough amounts, to build and equip new schools while continuing to operate existing campuses.
What about "the good old days"? Please; 50 years ago, then-Superintendent John Pierce Blanchard went to voters and asked approval to borrow what was then the outlandish sum of $1.3 million to build eight new schools, all at one time -- so growth of our system clearly isn't a new phenomena.
Our county's continued strong growth isn't an illusion, either. Each year, enough new students enter the Columbia County system to fill an entire school, which is why so many of the county's campuses have little farms of portable buildings.
The state won't allow school systems to build new schools in anticipation of growth; new schools can only be built to accommodate students who already are enrolled. That means overcrowding, and portables, are a fact of life.
Without SPLOST funding, however, the overcrowded conditions would be far worse -- and property tax bills would be far higher to make up for it. Every person who purchases goods in Columbia County now helps pay those bills thanks to SPLOST; that includes tourists who are just passing through, and renters who don't directly pay property tax. Without SPLOST, homeowners would shoulder a far greater share of the burden for operating the school system.
On Tuesday, the school system is asking for renewal of the sales tax, and for voters to approve borrowing some $30 million that would be repaid with sales-tax proceeds. It's fiscally smart, because it allows the school system to move forward with badly needed projects without having to wait what could be years for enough money to build up in penny-tax reserves.
Voters should likewise make a smart decision Tuesday, March 15 and vote YES on the sales tax and school bonds. We highly recommend doing so.
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