I appreciate this opportunity to share information regarding the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (E-SPLOST) and our need to continue this most important 1-cent sales tax.
In Columbia County, we are extremely fortunate to have citizens who value education and who have shown their commitment to our students, teachers and school system by providing significant financial support through the E-SPLOST.
Because we continue to face huge economic demands from a growing student population and aging facilities, along with budget shortfalls due to inadequate state funding, we have taken steps to initiate a new referendum to continue the E-SPLOST for another five years and will ask voters to continue their financial support by voting for the E-SPLOST July 20.
In order for our citizens to fully recognize how important the continuation of this funding is for the progress of our schools and our students' education with little or no negative impact to the property owners of this county, it is important to note what E-SPLOST has provided to our school system beginning in 1997 through today and how it will address our future needs.
The first E-SPLOST from 1997 to 2002 provided approximately $44.5 million in revenue that by law could be used solely for capital outlay projects, to include new construction, technology hardware, and the purchase of school buses.
With these funds, approximately $25 million was used to retire old bond debt, which in turn reduced the yearly property tax rate by approximately 3.25 mils, equivalent to about $5 million. Additionally, the school system built one middle school and added classroom additions and upgrades to several schools, including stadium improvements to the existing high schools.
Recognizing the value of the reduction of property taxes, along with the ability to meet capital outlay demands of our growing school system, voters elected to continue this 1-cent sales tax in 2002 and again in 2007.
The benefits of these decisions have had an enormous positive impact on our students, our system and this community. Major accomplishments include:
- the construction of eight new schools and classroom additions to six schools;
- the purchase of land for six new schools helping us to alleviate over-crowding in growing areas of our county; and,
- the reduction of old debt in the amount of over $81.2 million.
At the sake of being repetitious, all of this has been accomplished without burdening the property owners of our county.
But this is not all the E-SPLOST has added to our school system as we seek to provide our students with the best education possible. With funds from this one-penny sales tax, the system has been able to purchase on average 10 to 15 school buses a year, computers and other technologies at a cost of approximately $2 million per year, and other building upgrades such as new roofs, heating and air units and parking lots.
Because these improvements have been funded by the E-SPLOST, we have been able to maximize the use of state and local tax dollars for improving and enhancing our instructional programs. Locally funded initiatives such as providing a paraprofessional in every first- and second-grade class, school nurses in every elementary school and enrichment programs, including music, art and foreign language, have all been made possible by E-SPLOST - again, all with no additional burden to local property owners.
However, even with all of these improvements, school system needs in the area of capital outlay abound at a projected cost of approximately $150 million over the next five to 10 years just to maintain our facilities to state code and in a manner essential for a positive learning environment. Rather than simply do patchwork and leave students in less-than-desirable buildings, I have proposed an aggressive building program that can provide new, energy-efficient schools with state-of-the-art technological capabilities at nearly the same cost of repairing and upgrading existing facilities.
The first two phases of this proposal include six new schools and the upgrading of athletic facilities and auditoriums at four of our five high schools. Most importantly, by the end of this E-SPLOST period our school system will have kept up with student population increases with space available for much of our future growth needs, all at no extra cost to property owners, and leaving the school system debt-free and ready for whatever the future brings.
All this said, we can be proud to live in a community where education is at the forefront of our concerns. We are most grateful that our families and businesses have not spared time or expense in helping us meet the instructional needs of all our students.
Even so, across our county we educate children at a cost approximately $1,000 less per pupil than the state average and, even if we had the need, we could not raise taxes high enough to reach the state average. As in the past, it is through the E-SPLOST initiative that we will be able to continue to provide for the well-being and success of our future: the children we educate. For that reason, I ask for your support in this endeavor.
(Charles R. Nagle is Columbia County superintendent of schools.)
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