It seems only a short time ago that I was superintendent, but in the 21 years I have been gone the District has added 40,000 students! Today there are more than 107,000 students enrolled. Today I am retired and planning to relocate from my current farm in Mississippi. Soon my wife and I will be on our way back to Cobb County and the community we know and love so well. We will be full-time Cobb residents again in a matter of months. One thing has not changed: The Cobb County and Marietta school districts continue to lead the state and perform above national averages in providing a quality public education.
Why have our schools remained so strong? Clearly community support has a lot to do with it — the kind that led to the passage of the first one-penny sales tax for schools nearly 15 years ago. You may ask why a retiree cares about Cobb County schools. For one, the district employs two of my daughters. Even more importantly, it has educated five of my grandchildren.
I still keep a close eye on the school system’s budget every year, so I know first-hand that dollars for the general operating budget are extremely tight. State funding has seen huge cuts, and local property tax revenue is down significantly due to the depressed housing market. Cobb school district employees have endured pay cuts and furlough days, and have not had a raise in six years! Despite the challenges, these educators continue to do a tremendous job educating our children. By funding the district’s capital needs, the SPLOST program provides substantial relief for the general operating budget, and I hate to think of where our schools systems would be without it.
The current SPLOST expires at the end of 2013 and cannot be extended without a vote of approval from Cobb citizens. A referendum will be held Tuesday March 19, and I am encouraging everyone who reads this to please go to the polls and vote “Yes.” Consider the following points:
• It’s not a new tax but a continuation of the current SPLOST. If Ed-SPLOST 4 is approved, Cobb’s sales tax rate will remain 6 percent.
•A large percentage of the tax is paid by people who don’t live in Cobb County, but spend money in Cobb’s restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores, malls and anywhere a retail sales tax is charged.
• In 15 years, the first three SPLOST programs have been models of government efficiency, thanks to close public oversight, and have provided a huge benefit for our schools.
• Thanks to SPLOST, trailer classrooms have been reduced from more than 700 to fewer than 90.
• A SPLOST is the best way to pay for capital needs — far preferable than to have a property tax increase.
• Thanks to SPLOST, the Cobb County School District is completely free of long-term debt!
There are more than 120 school buildings in the Cobb and Marietta school systems combined. In Cobb, one third of the buildings are more than 45 years old. These buildings have ongoing needs — roofs, parking lots, HVAC systems, computers, carpeting, drainage, etc. I have heard the argument that the school systems should let the SPLOST expire for a time before asking for a renewal. But the needs of our school buildings won’t just go away. In fact, the true needs of these buildings is more than double what the SPLOST actually will generate in revenue.
If you won’t take my word for it, please see for yourself. Take a visit to Walton High School in east Cobb, or Osborne High School in Smyrna. Both of these facilities are in dire need of renovation and both are scheduled for a makeover if Ed-SPLOST 4 is approved. There are many more examples of schools in need of revitalization. Also planned is a career academy that will be a huge boon for our students and our community. Local businesses have been calling for just such a program for many years, and now is the opportunity to make it happen.
By almost every standard, the SPLOST program has been a huge success. Following my tenure as superintendent, the aim of the first two five-year SPLOST programs was to help the district catch up with enrollment, and SPLOST did that by building 21 new schools and adding thousands of new classrooms throughout the county. Now those facilities need attention, or the routine repairs of today will carry a much higher price tag in short time.
The needs of our schools must be funded one way or another, and it’s clear that a sales tax is a far superior means to do it. During my tenure, schools paid for capital needs by issuing bonds. But bonds have to be paid back with interest, and the only way school systems can pay the principal and interest is by raising property taxes. The last school bond in 1995 raised $250 million for capital projects, but the interest on that bond was an additional $95 million! SPLOST revenue has no interest, and the projects are paid for as the revenue is raised. In fact, a portion of revenue from the first two SPLOST programs was used to pay off the remaining debt from the 1995 bond, leaving the Cobb County School District in the extremely rare and enviable position of being entirely free of long-term debt.
There are thousands of projects in the proposed five-year program, so it is fair if you have a quibble with one or two of them. That should not cloud the big-picture perspective of what this $718 million program means to our schools. The loss of SPLOST dollars will result in a reduction of academic programs, and will force the school district to raise property taxes. There is really no alternative.
The reputation of our schools is critical to Cobb’s economy because strong schools are the number one reason why people and businesses want to be here. The proposal for Ed-SPLOST 4 will meet critical needs for at least five more years and will help Cobb County and Marietta schools maintain their high standard of performance.
I am convinced that the continuation of the SPLOST program is the only way to protect the future of our school district — and our children. The choice is yours. Please vote “Yes” for Ed-SPLOST 4 on March 19.
Kermit Keenum served as superintendent of Cobb schools in 1973-80 and 1989-93.