A committee of area businessmen and one-time educators recently formed to generate positive publicity for the continuation of a 1-percent sales tax for education.
On the ballot of the July 20 primary, Columbia County voters will be asked whether they want to keep a 1-percent sales tax for capital improvements within the school system. The Committee for Columbia County Schools is encouraging voters to answer "yes."
"The specific focus is to get word out to the community in support of the referendum on July 20 and let citizens know it's a continuation of an existing E-SPLOST (Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax)," said committee Chairman Rick Crawford.
The committee is distributing fliers, putting out 100 "campaign" signs along heavily-traveled roads and sending e-mail solicitations, said Crawford, who is an executive with Security Federal Bank in Evans.
Similar committees formed in 2001 and 2007 to solicit "yes" votes for previously successful E-SPLOST referendums. This year, though, sales tax supporters might face a more difficult battle with a public disgusted with a poor economy, state budget cuts and runaway spending at the federal level.
"Knowing it's not a new tax may overcome any kind of opposition that may be out there, but I haven't heard a lot of negative concerns about the E-SPLOST," Crawford said. "I don't know of any type of ground swell opposition to this vote."
County Board of Education Chairwoman Regina Buccafusco is more cautious after hearing warnings from others that the E-SPLOST is in jeopardy.
"There's a tide out there now, I've been told, that is totally against anything that has the word 'tax' on it," she said.
Thus Buccafusco's support for any group dedicated to altering negative opinions toward the sales tax.
"They're very helpful," she said of this committee and former ones. "They're the ones who go out there and get the message out."
The message, Crawford and Buccafusco said, is that the E-SPLOST is necessary to keep up with growth and maintain the school system's level of service.
The school board lost about $6 million in state funding for next school year and has lost more than $20 million since 2007. To cope with those cuts, school officials cut programs, eliminated numerous teaching positions, furloughed teachers, raised class sizes and shortened the school year.
The system's financial woes would be far worse had they also needed the general fund to pay for school buses, building repairs and computers, all of which is funded with sales tax dollars.
"They (school officials) are able to maximize the use of the general funds, as well as state and federal funds, for classroom enhancement, not capital improvements," Crawford said.
Were it not for the E-SPLOST, Buccafusco said the board might have to raise property taxes.
"If we don't get the (E-SPLOST), we're going to have to look at other avenues to get this done," she said. "It's got to come from somewhere."
High-ticket items listed on the referendum for the next E-SPLOST include replacing Columbia Middle, Martinez Elementary, Evans Elementary, the county alternative school, and other schools.
The replacement schools will be larger, more efficient and relieve overcrowding at other schools, Buccafusco said.
"I feel certain that the Columbia County Board of Education have been excellent stewards of the taxpayers' money," said Crawford of his reasons for supporting a continued sales tax. "This E-SPLOST program is much needed because it's going toward continued growth."
For information, to volunteer, or to lend financial support to The Committee for Columbia County Schools, contact Crawford by calling (706) 650-6782 or e-mail him at rcrawford@security federalbank.com.
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