Clayton County Schools hopes SPLOST will help bring respect

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

District asks voters to approve bonds to pay for $350 million in projects

When Anthony Smith pitched a $350 million SPLOST for Clayton County Schools during a town hall meeting earlier this month, he kept coming back to one phrase over and over.

“Right here in Clayton in County, y’all,” the district’s interim superintendent said in hopes of drumming up excitement about the south metro Atlanta school system’s plans.

He used the phrase when he boasted about the new $86 million Morrow High School and its aviation program, the $95 million convocation center the district plans to build to replace the Sears building at Southlake Mall and the close to 50 Tesla charging stations coming to school property.

“Within that school,” he said of the new Morrow building, “is one of the most unique aviation programs that you will find in this country. Those students have the privilege of having 17 flight simulators to train for their pilot’s license moving forward.

“Right here in Clayton County.”

The repeated use of the phrase was part showmanship and part effort to create civic pride. But it also was an acknowledgment that Clayton, which has about 52,000 students, desperately needs to catch up to its metro Atlanta peers in the construction of new buildings and programs that prepare students for future jobs.

Throwback buildings

The south metro district has some of the oldest school buildings in the metro area, with Smith saying the average age of Clayton’s facilities is about 50 years old. A handful of elementary school edifices date back to when the Edsel was popular and Elvis Presley ruled the charts.

Clayton residents will vote on the SPLOST on Tuesday as part of a special election that will also choose a new sheriff and the county’s District 75 state House representative. If approved, the county’s 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax for education would be collected for five years.

Unlike past referendums, however, the school system is asking residents to approve the issuance of $435 million in district bonds to pay for the $350 million in projects. Ronick Joseph, the district’s chief capital improvement officer, said Clayton historically has been a “pay as you go district” and that seeking bonds would allow the school system to get funding quicker.

Joseph, who worked on the plan with Smith for the past two years under then-Superintendent Morcease Beasley, admitted that having both numbers in the language of the SPLOST can be confusing.

“I do feel that the language is a little ‘legalese,’” he said. “But our attorneys say every one of those words are needed.”

Attania Jean-Funny, a Clayton County mother of two and a former teacher with the school district, said she thinks the school system’s new approach to secure funding is innovative and would let Clayton address its issues more quickly.

“If we want our community to progress, it really starts with our school system,” she said.

But community activist Orlando Gooden is not as convinced about the SPLOST. He said the district’s leadership has been lacking for so long that he doubts giving them more money would improve the overall quality of education in the county.

Unfinished business

Like many districts, Clayton is seeking the new funding while the most recent SPLOST, which will expire on Dec. 31, 2024, is still in effect. The district is finishing up projects from that $280 million funding, including demolition and construction of Forest Park Middle School. Students from the school have been moved to Morrow High School. Smith said the district has about $30 million in its account balance from past SPLOSTs.

One focus for the upcoming SPLOST will be the creation of early learning centers to encourage more pre-K education. Five elementary schools — Lee Street, Lake City, Edmonds, Hendrix Drive and Kemp Primary — will be renovated and modernized to accommodate early learning centers while the system will spend $25 million on a new Riverdale Early Learning Center.

Clayton will replace five elementary and middle schools — Mundy’s Mill Middle and Fountain, Huie, Morrow and Suder elementaries — at about $35 million a pop and build a new North Clayton High School for about $70 million. Millions more will be spent to modernize 16 elementary buildings, three middle schools and Mount Zion High School. Work at Lovejoy High School, costing about $70 million, will include modernization as well as a new addition.

Credit: Clayton County Schools

Credit: Clayton County Schools

The district also plans to build four new STEM schools to complement Michelle Obama STEM elementary, the only school of its kind in Clayton.

Among the priorities also will be the purchase of more than 300 buses at a price tag of about $29 million, Smith said.

“We’ve got a fleet that is so old that 90% of our fleet is beyond their useful life,” he said.

Preserving the past

About $2 million will be set aside to renovate an abandoned Rosenwald School location in Jonesboro. Rosenwald Schools were constructed as segregated education facilities beginning in the early teens of the 20th century for Black children.

Credit: Clayton County Schools

Credit: Clayton County Schools

“This is very important to the community overall, particularly to our older community,” Smith said.

Smith said to change the narrative that Clayton is a lagging district, it has to invest in itself.

“This is how you pay for capital improvements in a school system,” he said during the town hall. “The federal government doesn’t come in and build all this stuff for you. The state has a minimum role. It’s the local taxpayers, the ones who really provide for the bulk of the funding for this stuff.”

Special elections Tuesday March 21

Tuesday is a special election day for some metro Atlanta voters. Here are some links to learn more

- Mableton will hold its first elections for mayor and city council

- Clayton County will choose sheriff after conviction of Victor Hill

- Clayton County Schools hopes SPLOST will help bring respect

- Fayette County holds referendum on renewal of sales tax.

- House District 75 voters will choose a replacement for Rep. Mike Glanton

- City elections to be held in Jonesboro

- Are you eligible to vote on Tuesday? Check the Georgia My Voter page.

UPDATES on Election Day. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will provide election results on all of our platforms, including, the AJC app and ePaper editions.

Across metro Atlanta

Clayton County Schools has a $350 million SPLOST measure on Tuesday’s ballot. Here are other total education SPLOST collections expected to be spent in metro Atlanta and the year they were approved:

Atlanta: $650 million (2021)

Cobb: $895 million (2021)

Decatur: $41 million (2021)

DeKalb: $743 million (2021)

Fulton: $1.2 billion (2021)

Gwinnett: $984.5 million (2020)

Marietta: $71 million (2021)