Henry seeking $325 million school SPLOST to address growth

McDonough Middle School was one of Henry County's newest schools in 2019. It was paid for with funds from the county's fifth SPLOST.  Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
McDonough Middle School was one of Henry County's newest schools in 2019. It was paid for with funds from the county's fifth SPLOST. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Devon Ward moved from Macon to metro Atlanta in 2007 in search of the perfect community to raise a family.

Ward’s goal: find a school system where his daughter would not be in packed classrooms.

He liked Henry because, as one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, school district leaders were thinking ahead about overcrowding, he said. Hampton Middle School, where his daughter started, had just opened, and there were plans or what would become Hampton High School.

“We benefitted from the decisionmakers at that time who saw the overcrowding,” said Ward, senior pastor of Hampton’s Victorious Life Bible Church. “My daughter was part of the first four-year graduating class at Hampton High School.”

Henry leaders hope they will continue to earn Ward’s praise with their latest attempt to think ahead on education. Residents will go to the polls March 16 to do something familiar: decide whether to approve the county’s sixth Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for education.

This time, the price tag is $325 million and the county, which has seen its student population and number of schools more than double since 1999, plans to use the money to buy 125 buses over the next five years, expand six schools and build three new ones, including a STEM high school.

Collections would begin in 2022 when the current SPLOST 5 ends.

“Where we can expand, we do,” Henry Schools spokesman J.D. Hardin said. “We are constantly looking at population growth and making sure we are set up for the future.”

The SPLOST also would pay for a new bus maintenance facility, robotics course materials and updated laptops and tablets for all the district’s roughly 43,000 students. The computers proved pivotal after Georgia closed schools in March 2020 because of the coronavirus, forcing students to learn remotely.

Larry Savage, a Cobb County resident who has spoken out against SPLOST referendums, said residents should question if such taxes have become perpetual.

“I think leaders forget the ‘s’ in SPLOST, which stands for special,” said Savage, who owns property in Henry. “It seems like we have gone beyond the original intention of the law.”

David Sjoquist, a demographer and professor of economics at Georgia State University, said Henry’s growth over the past few decades has been dramatic and is a reflection of a strong metro Atlanta economy and lower cost of living. What was a county of around 36,000 in the 1980s has exploded into a suburban powerhouse of about 240,000 today.

Henry, like Rockdale, Douglas and Forsyth is benefitting from people moving farther out of the traditional core metro communities. Forsyth took Henry’s mantle as the fastest-growing county in metro Atlanta in recent years. “Henry’s growth will stop when the land gets used up,”Sjoquist said.

That has driven Henry to stay on its toes, Henry Schools Chief Operating Officer Josh Malcom said.

For instance, the previous SPLOSTS have helped the district decrease the number of trailers its uses to address overcrowding — from more than 600 between 2000 ad 2010 to about 48 now. The district will be trailer-free if the new SPLOST is approved.

Some of those in trailers are employees of the district’s administrative office, which will also get a new building under the proposed uses for the new SPLOST.

Latasha Adams, an assistant professor of teacher education at Clayton State University, said while 600 trailers is too many, she thinks the mobile facilities get a bad rap. Student performance is less dictated by environment and more about how the person absorbs information and the quality of instruction, Adams said.

“It depends on the teacher and what the teacher does in that classroom,” she said.

For Kim Mays, a State Farm insurance agent, her support for SPLOST is partly an investment in the community’s children and partly in her business. Better schools attract residents and potential clients.

“At the end of the day, the children are our future, they are the next us,” she said. “So we need to support the things that they need.”

Henry County will hold a referendum on a $325 million SPLOST for schools March 16 to address growth. Here are facts about the county and its school system:

Population: 240,000

Number of students: 43,000

Number of schools: 52

New schools proposed in SPLOST: 3

School expansions in SPLOST: 6

New buses: 125 over five years

Laptops/tablets: New computers for all students

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