MARIETTA — In a little over a month, voters will head to the polls to decide whether Cobb Schools should receive nearly $718 million in new SPLOST funds.
As the campaign heads toward the final push, some powerful interests are lining up on both sides of the sales-tax debate. Depending on who you talk to, SPLOST is either an essential building block for a school system struggling to keep its financial head above water, or it is an ill-conceived funding source lined with pork-barrel projects.
If the renewal of the 1-cent sales tax is approved March 19, Cobb Schools is expected to bring in 93 percent of the collections, or about $717.8 million, between Jan. 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2018.
The school board approved its multi-million dollar project list in November. Only north Cobb’s Kathleen Angelucci opposed the list.
Cobb’s list includes spending around $175.5 million on new or replacement facilities, $10 million on land, $130.3 million on additions or modifications, $179 million on infrastructure and individual school needs, $97.9 million on safety and support and $125 million on curriculum, instruction and technology.
The big-ticket items include a $39.9 million renovation at Walton High School, a $29.9 million Osborne High School replacement, a $29 million east Cobb area replacement middle school and two replacement elementary schools for $23 million each.
Walton’s upgrades will include a $24.4 million classroom addition and a fine arts facility with theater and $9 million gymnasium.
The school, originally built in 1975, is off Bill Murdock Road in east Cobb and serves the largest population of students in Cobb at 2,636. It is about 300 students over capacity.
Osborne High School, which is the oldest high school in Cobb Schools and located off Favor Road south of Marietta, will be built behind its existing facility. It serves 1,780 students.
Chris Ragsdale, the district’s deputy superintendent of operations, said neither high school will be demolished from the ground up.
Any recent additions or modifications will remain, much like with Wheeler High School’s rebuild.
The east Cobb area middle school will be built to replace East Cobb Middle School off Holt Road, but the district was not sure if it would be able to build directly where the current school is located.
There are 1,280 sixth- through eighth-graders at East Cobb Middle, which was built in 1963.
The stand-alone career academy was proposed in light of the state’s recently adopted College and Career Ready Performance Index that replaces No Child Left Behind. It goes into effect the 2014-15 school year.
It will require students to take college- and career-preparedness classes before graduating from high school.
The idea behind the school is to have a central location where students, preferably in 11th and 12th grades, can go to continue studies for 17 possible career pathways.
The district originally proposed building two, one in north Cobb and a second in south Cobb, but reduced to only one after hearing concerns from board members who questioned the lack of details released by the district regarding the exact location and make-up of the academies.
The two replacement elementary schools or potential locations have not been named, but previously the district said they would be built at the onset of possibly consolidating or replacing Sedalia Park, Powers Ferry, Eastside, Milford, LaBelle, Belmont Hills or Brumby elementary schools.
Each of these schools, which serve students in kindergarten through fifth grade, are some of the oldest in Cobb and were built in the 1950s and 1960s.
A more in-depth outline of the project list can be found on the district’s website at www.cobbk12.org.
Who’s against it?
Over the last six months, many people representing themselves and local organizations have spoken out against SPLOST IV — more specifically members of both the Cobb County Taxpayers Association, Georgia Tea Party and some Cobb employees who have opted to remain anonymous.
J.D. Van Brink, chair of the Georgia Tea Party, said he believes there are a number of projects on Cobb’s list that are needed, but his organization doesn’t agree with the process of how they came up with the list.
He would rather the district determine its list of needs and the cost, rather than coming up with a cost and then filling in the project list.
Van Brink also pointed out one item on the list that he has the biggest problem with approving: the proposed career academy.
“We understand the concept that we have a lot of people who really shouldn’t be going to college but learning a trade, and there is a need for skilled labor, but we don’t need one or even two special places in the county to go to do that,” he said. “We can do that in the existing schools.”
He said there are just too many unanswered questions about the career academy project, including where it will be located, how it will be staffed and if transportation will be provided.
“I understand the intent, but we need more details,” he said.
Lance Lamberton with the Cobb County Taxpayers Association said he, too, opposes the need for the academy but pointed out a few additional projects he considers questionable. They include $37.4 million in athletic upgrades for concession stands and stadium improvements, $6.4 million for new band and choral instruments, $30-plus million for painting projects, $90,000 each for high school tennis courts and PE court resurfacing and formerly declaring millions of dollars as “excess” to pay down the millage rate.
Van Brink’s and Lamberton’s organizations aren’t the only ones not in favor of SPLOST IV, also called “Ed-SPLOST.”
One of Cobb Schools’ educators, who requested anonymity for fear of losing their job, said he or she is in favor of SPLOST IV but not the way it is managed. The educator specifically opposes the need for $40 million in upgrades to Walton.
“Having been in the Walton building quite a bit in the last 20-plus years, I really don’t see a need in destroying the existing building to construct a new one,” the educator said.
The educator also said parents are not fully informed of what’s going on with the project lists.
“Ninety percent of the parents, students and general public who pay taxes do not know how their money is being used right now in CCSD projects,” the educator said. “But I believe there are a lot of east Cobb parents with a lot of money and influence who are pushing for a new school for Walton.
“The time to nip all of this in the bud is now before all of these overly-elaborate pork barrel SPLOST projects get out of hand.”
Who’s for it?
Not everyone in the Cobb Schools community is against the initiative.
Parents who serve on a southeast Cobb Parent Teacher Association, as well as members of the FACE It Cobb (Funding Awareness Campaign for Education), favor SPLOST IV’s passage.
Suzanne Saad, the council chair for Teasley Elementary School, spoke at Wednesday’s work session to remind residents of the need for the passage of SPLOST, especially for her school.
The Smyrna school, which is nearly 200 students over capacity with a population of 733 kindergarten through fifth graders, is desperately in need of classroom additions, she said.
If SPLOST IV is approved next month, the Teasley community could see an extra 10 classrooms built for approximately $1.7 million, in addition to the relocation of some playground equipment, utilities and paving, and upgrading site conditions.
The total proposed cost is $3.1 million.
In a previous appearance before the board, Saad also asked that Teasley’s renovations be included among the first.
“We want to ask you that when the projects are implemented that we would be considered in the first tier of those schools to have those projects looked at and worked on,” she said. “We really are in need for some facility improvements.”
FACE It Cobb, which formed last spring as a result of a group of parents, teachers and Cobb Schools constituents concerned about lack of adequate funding for public education, is also in support of SPLOST IV passing.
“We are 100 percent in favor of the Ed-SPLOST IV, and we encourage folks to show their support,” said David Schwartz. “Let your voice be heard, either pro or con, but ultimately these are issues that need to be addressed one way or the other.”
Schwartz is the father of one Pope High School graduate and two other students who attend Dodgen Middle School.
His argument behind supporting the referendum is that if SPLOST IV doesn’t pass, the current $80 million budget deficit that Cobb is looking at for the 2014 fiscal year will only continue to worsen.
“We need to come up with some issues and/or ideas to address that budget shortfall,” he said. “If SPLOST doesn’t pass, then it’s probably going to be more draw off from those reserves, and you’re left with either tax increases, bond referendums or increasing property taxes.”
In an effort to educate the public about their stance, Schwartz said FACE It Cobb has worked with Cobb School Board Member Scott Sweeney to host informational town halls and started a Facebook page.