That’s the message state Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), chairman of the Cobb Legislative Delegation, said he took away from a meeting between delegation members and Cobb and Marietta school district officials on Monday at the Cobb library off Roswell Street.
A SPLOST IV, which voters will decide on in March, is projected to collect around $772 million in sales tax revenue for both Cobb and Marietta schools.
Setzler and state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) made the point that the political environment is tougher than ever for a SPLOST referendum and that voters don’t always distinguish between federal, state and local levels of government, meaning the school systems need to redouble their efforts to make the sale to the public.
The Marietta-based Georgia Tea Party, for example, is taking a stand against the education SPLOST.
“We oppose the process first of all,” Georgia Tea Party Chairman J.D. Van Brink said. “We believe the current process is putting the cart before the horse. We’re figuring out how much money we can raise and then we’re figuring out what to spend it on, and there are some very good things in the project list, things that should be built, but we do believe we should first start with the project list, then figure out how much it will cost, and then figure out how to pay for it.”
Van Brink also believes the vote should be held when most people go to the polls in November rather than March “where pretty much the special interests can control the outcome or at least give them a pretty good advantage.”
Van Brink said his group supports legislation that would allow for the school system or county government to collect a fraction of a percent rather than a full percent with a SPLOST. The group would also like to see the dates a SPLOST can be voted on restricted to either a general or primary election.
Moreover, Van Brink wants the law to shrink the current three-month gap between the time a SPLOST is approved to when the tax begins to be collected to eight weeks.
Commenting on whether he supports another education SPLOST, Tippins said, “There are legitimate needs that the district has that most likely will not be met without some additional funding, and I guess I could say the exact amount of those legitimate needs need to absolutely be determined on what the absolutely non-negotiable number on what the needs are.”
Whether the $717.8 million project list is made up entirely of “legitimate needs” Tippins said he couldn’t say.
Another request made to lawmakers by Cobb Schools Superintendent Michael Hinojosa was the elimination of the state austerity cuts.
Tippins said the county has lost $425 million from the state austerity cuts since 2003 and doesn’t expect that sum to be repaid. Whether future austerity cuts occur will depend on the state budget, he said.
Marietta Schools Superintendent Emily Lembeck did not make that request.
“I really don’t believe that there is additional money that is going to be forthcoming, and I have served on the Education Finance Study Commission in an ad hoc role on two committees, and I get the feeling that there is no new money,” Lembeck said. “I’m hoping that Georgia will make a commitment that as funds return that our schools will be funded as they should be, but right now I felt that I was going to maintain a very focused list of things that if they come before our legislators that they at least know why I believe these things are important.”
Lembeck asked lawmakers to amend Senate Bill 618, legislation approved in 2006 that governs residential treatment facilities. The bill transferred responsibility for educating children in state custody from state agencies such as the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Juvenile Justice to local school systems. The idea was that lawmakers wanted to ensure that the students were receiving an education, Lembeck said.
“While it is well-intentioned, the law mandates that for the most part nonresident students who remain in these facilities for less than a year whose primary concern is in our situation their drug dependency or other issues that we then became accountable for their education on their graduation rates and their test scores,” Lembeck said. “While actually we really can’t be responsible for their education, we don’t hire their teachers, we don’t supervise their schools, the students are a big part of their reason for being in the residential treatment centers are nonacademic issues, however we do own their accountability.”
Marietta has 30 such students, none of whom reside in the city. Having to count them as part of the system, however, caused Marietta to have a 3 percent decrease in its graduation rate, Lembeck said. Marietta is not the only system to be impacted by the legislation. In Bleckley County the impact was a 7 percent reduction in the graduation rate, while in Dublin City it had a 10 percent impact, she said.
Lembeck also asked lawmakers to continue to provide charter systems with the state money that comes from having the charter system designation. In Marietta’s case, that amount is more than $700,000 annually. Lembeck also asked for funding for technology infrastructure.
In other delegation business, neither Tippins nor Setzler were enthusiastic about a proposal that is expected to come before the legislature in the coming session to build a new $1 billion stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, who currently play home games at the Georgia Dome. The Dome is operated by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, a state agency. The new stadium would be paid for in part with hotel-motel tax dollars.
“I’ve not yet been convinced why we would need another one that the public would be involved in,” Setzler said. “I know the hotel-motel tax is ostensibly used for economic development, but with the Mayor of Atlanta talking about taking state dollars or even TIA (TSPLOST) dollars to build economic development-driven transit projects downtown, I don’t know why if we’ve got residual hotel-motel tax dollars that couldn’t be used for some of those projects. Why a billion dollar sports stadium is a priority for the metro region when we’ve got a very good stadium today and other infrastructure needs which apparently if you watch the commercials we’re in need of other infrastructure.”
Tippins said he had yet to see the financial details of the stadium proposal.
“If you asked me would I rather create bonded indebtedness for needed infrastructure or for a stadium, I’d rather put it for needed infrastructure,” Tippins said. “A stadium may be nice. I’m not sure that’s the greatest need that Atlanta has right now.”
Other lawmakers in attendance at the meeting were state Sen. Judson Hill (R-east Cobb) and state Reps. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta), John Carson (R-northeast Cobb) and Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna).