Cobb County voters will head to the polls Tuesday, March 21, to decide whether to continue a penny sales tax that officials hope will pay for hundreds of new classrooms and other projects in the Cobb and Marietta school districts.
Cobb school district officials are focusing their pitch to skeptical residents in south Cobb who have been dissatisfied by what they say is the slow pace of ongoing projects funded by the current tax.
The uncertainty was evident during one recent meeting at Osborne High School, when residents pressed officials to affirm renovation of the county’s oldest high school will indeed start later this year.
“We deserve it because we have been patient,” Mona Williams said during the meeting, exasperation in her voice. “We’re way behind everybody.”
Cobb officials say they understand the frustration, but insist south Cobb hasn’t been intentionally left behind. The officials say they prioritized construction projects at schools with the most rapid enrollment growth.
“You are trying to do as many things as you can do at the same time,” said James Wilson, a consultant for the school district. “(South Cobb) hasn’t been neglected.”
School construction projects in Georgia have often been a tale of the haves getting more and the have-nots getting less. A 2016 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found the majority of new schools in parts of metro Atlanta are built to serve more affluent populations, often in fast-growing areas. In Cobb, nearly two-thirds of the schools built with penny sales tax in the past 20 years opened to student bodies with affluent majorities.
If approved, the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax would collect a maximum of $859.5 million over its five-year life; $797 million for Cobb and $62.5 million for Marietta. Officials believe much of the money would come from non-Cobb residents visiting entertainment sites in Cobb such as Six Flags and the new SunTrust Park, as well as shopping districts, such as the Barrett Parkway area.
The referendum’s approval is no sure thing. The last education SPLOST in Cobb passed in 2013 with about 57 percent of the vote, a smaller percentage than the most recent SPLOST votes in Gwinnett, DeKalb and Fulton counties. The Cobb Taxpayers Association sided against this month’s referendum after school board members added $40 million to the cost estimate.Opponents said that was included without proper vetting.
“Voters should vote this one down and have an education SPLOST minus the $40 million,” said Lance Lamberton, the association’s founder and chairman.
Cobb officials say they added the $40 million in case they need more classrooms. Combined, Cobb and Marietta have about 122,000 students, the second-largest public school enrollment of any Georgia county.
Supporters are pleading for it to pass, citing statistics that only about 10 percent of Cobb’s budget goes to things such as school maintenance and school buses. If it doesn’t pass, the school district may have to eliminate jobs, cut services or raise property taxes, warns Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators.
“I would hate to see one of those options exercised,” Jackson said in an interview.
Jackson raised those concerns during the meeting in the small auditorium at Osborne High, which could get a new theater if SPLOST passes. Jackson and Cobb parent Tony Waybright argued over her claims, which he said were “fear-mongering.” Waybright, though, wants the referendum to pass. His son is on the Campbell High School fencing team, which is in line to get additional classroom space and other major improvements. Waybright said that Pope High, north of Marietta, has a gym nicer than any in south Cobb. Pope is getting a new gym and theater as part of the current SPLOST.
“There is a question of priorities,” Waybright said in an interview.
Each Cobb school is in line for some improvements under the proposed SPLOST. The majority of the major improvements are in Mableton, Smyrna and south Cobb, where officials say they’re now seeing the fastest population growth. Four new schools would be built countywide.
David Berny, who sits on the Cobb SPLOST facilities and technology committee, said he plans to vote against the referendum. Berny believes political and community leaders in wealthier parts of Cobb have “bullied” school board members into getting SPLOST projects done.
“I think the only way to change things is to let it fail,” Berny said.
Williams’ husband, John, said he will warily vote in favor of the referendum, using a metaphor to compare past project delays.
“We know SPLOST needs to pass,” he said in an interview. “But it’s like you keep putting this glass of water in front of us and keep pushing it away from us. We just want the glass of water.”
About the proposed education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax
- it would begin in January 2019 and end in 2023.
- it would collect a maximum of $859.5 million.
- it would build five new or replacement schools in Cobb and Marietta.
- Marietta would build a new College and Career Academy.
- Cobb would build 210 additional classrooms
Here’s the breakdown of how the money would be spent in both districts:
- Construction of new classrooms & facilities: $408 million
- Classroom technology: $182.5 million
- Safety & Security: $150.5 million
- Infrastructure & technology: $111 million
- Other: $7.5 million
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