Not all reap benefits from penny education tax

Sewage backs up and spills onto the grounds of Harmony-Leland Elementary when it rains heavily, parents say. Leaks plague the nearly 64-year-old school, one of the oldest in Cobb County, where close to a dozen trailers are lined up outside to deal with student overcrowding.

Cobb County school officials slated Harmony-Leland for replacement nearly five years ago, planning to use Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes, but school board members ditched the plan, saying the district couldn’t afford it. That enraged parents.

“We don’t need a patch job. We don’t need a quick fix. We need a new school,” said David Berny, who has two children at the south Cobb school.

E-SPLOSTs have been a critical source of money to build and renovate schools since Georgia voters legalized the self-imposed, local penny-sales tax some 20 years ago. But not all students have benefited from the money doled out by school boards.

Schools like Harmony-Leland — with a higher percentage of low-income and minority families — are more likely to be stuck with dilapidated buildings, sub par technology and other problems that impede learning, while the majority of new schools are built to serve more affluent populations in growing suburbs.

For example, nearly two-thirds of the schools built by Cobb’s penny sales tax in the past 20 years opened to student bodies with affluent majorities. Gwinnett followed that pattern, while Fulton had over half, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state and federal data show.

DeKalb and Atlanta Public Schools, where roughly three-fourths of students are poor, built most of their schools paid for by the tax to serve majority-poor student bodies, the AJC analysis found.

School board representatives say districts use data-driven formulas to select which projects to fund, balancing needs in fast-growing areas with those in older areas.

But school board members make the final decisions when guiding the process, putting together lists and deciding which projects to cut when tax collections run short. Critics say the process by which elected school board members dole out penny tax funds is fraught with politics and favors the affluent.

The AJC found that new school construction follows growth, which typically takes place in affluent areas, but poorer students even in growing areas can get left behind, which alienates a segment of the parents needed to vote for the tax.

SPLOST up for vote

Penny sales taxes on local purchases raise large sums over the taxes’ five-year life spans. For example, DeKalb’s tax, which voters can choose to renew May 24, is expected to raise half a billion dollars.

Two other metro districts — Atlanta and Fulton — also have penny tax resolutions on May 24 ballots, and Cobb is expected to have one in early 2017. The money must be spent on capital projects such as new schools, renovations, technology, buses or debt reduction and not on items such as salaries or personnel.

Without the taxes, Georgia school districts argue they would likely have to raise property taxes to build schools or buy equipment. Anti-tax groups and other critics oppose the tax generally or complain about lack of accountability of spending, but voters pass a large majority of the school tax referendums.

While it benefits many students, some like those at Harmony-Leland and others fall through the cracks.

School board members removed Harmony-Leland from the district’s current SPLOST construction schedule, despite the need and even though the area’s population had grown by nearly two-thirds between 2000 and 2010, because tax revenue fell short of projections. However, the board voted to replace Mountain View Elementary, where about 7 percent of the students are poor and much less population growth had occurred, angering Harmony-Leland parents.

After months of criticism from parents like Berny, board members dedicated $10 million from the general fund —money not from SPLOST — toward a new school to help with Harmony-Leland growth. Berny and other parents fear, however, the school board could shift those funds to hiring teachers or other costs, and leave Harmony-Leland behind again.

A clean, well-cared-for school building is crucial to a “positive, productive climate, when students are in a space that’s welcoming and that supports how they learn,” said Claire Suggs, an education policy analyst with Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. “And when you’re in a facility not well-maintained, it does send a signal very often to kids that maybe what they’re doing doesn’t matter so much.”

State law leaves it up to school boards to determine which projects get built, and gives school districts great flexibility in how they distribute funds.

Cobb school board member David Morgan said deciding what schools get penny-tax funding can be politicized, and poorer students and parents in South Cobb, the area he represents, believe they’re not getting a fair share. He says school boards, in general, often give priority to projects in more affluent areas where voters typically turn out in support of the tax.

“You have (poor, minority) communities who desperately need capital improvements,” Morgan said. “But they are not as locked in and galvanized about the (tax) process. I think … in a broader sense, school districts have not done their best to communicate that this (tax vote) is coming up. It’s been a real insulated process. The principals tell the districts what their needs are, they stick it up on a website somewhere, and then it’s voted on.”

“We have to do a better job of communicating about it so that people not only understand it but feel a motivation to vote on it. In south Cobb, if you feel like you’ve been burned by a process, then it’s doubly hard to say go out and vote.”

Districts defend their decision-making process as fair and driven by data — not race, politics or class. Some hand the selection process over to third parties.

“Our analysis and decision making process for recommending capital improvements for SPLOST is primarily based on enrollment projections and classroom utilization and is data driven,” said a Cobb spokeswoman in a released statement.

Schools defend SPLOST

In Fulton County, 12 schools, are in “below average” condition or worse, a recent study says. The buildings have problems from leaky roofs to old heating and cooling systems to sub-par plumbing and are mostly in South Fulton — which has a predominantly poor and minority student population.

Fulton plans to renovate or replace the “below average” schools in the next five years with the next penny tax, if approved.

Patrick Burke, deputy superintendent of operations for Fulton schools, said the school district used an outside consulting group to assess the facilities to be objective.

“Socio-economics are not a factor in how we determine the locations of schools,” said Burke in a released statement. “It is a very data-driven process.”

The state gives school systems flexibility in planning penny-tax spending because the districts cannot always predict with certainty tax revenues or population growth, said Mike Rowland, director of facility services for Georgia Department of Education.

Districts present a plan for the spending so voters can see what they ought to be getting. Some plans are deemed vague, like DeKalb’s this year, which gives general spending categories, but specific projects will be named only after the May 24 vote. Others list specific schools to be built.

“I think there is an incentive for school systems to really stay as close to their original proposed project lists as they can,” Rowland said, adding that school board members don’t want to burn bridges with the voting public.

But school board members can appeal to voters by proposing projects in more affluent, politically savvy parts of the district where they believe they’ll get the most voter support for the tax — even if other areas of the districts have greater needs, critics say. And they sometimes overpromise to curry support, but pull back later.

School building resolutions “will have a whole wish list” for the tax’s 5-year life span, said Kenneth Knight, a deputy director with the state auditor’s office, which oversees SPLOST spending. “A lot of them will have a wish list larger … than what they know they’re going to get anyway.

“It’s all an estimate. Most of them (school systems) on their project list, when it starts getting toward the end of their five-year collection time, they’ll start cutting some of them loose. They’ll re-evaluate and say, ‘We’re just not getting the money. We can’t afford to do this project.’”

Some schools fall through cracks

Sometimes, existing needs are overlooked for a long time.

Northwestern DeKalb County’s Cross Keys cluster of six crowded schools, including Cross Keys High School, is populated mostly with poor, minority students whose primary language is not English. The schools were built for 5,700 students, but hold more than 7,500, because immigrants moved in and schools have been overcrowded for years. More than 100 portable classrooms are used the AJC reported last year.

Eileen Houston-Stewart, a spokeswoman for DeKalb schools, said: “Due to unforeseen changes in demographics and housing occupancies in the Cross Keys Cluster over the past several years, the district was unable to accurately anticipate the dramatic increase in student enrollment.”

This school year, new Superintendent Steve Green led a plan to move 1,600 students to other schools to alleviate overcrowding, and long-term plans call for two new elementary schools.

Rebekah Morris, who teaches ninth-grade English at Cross Keys High, and others have said penny tax money should have been spent years ago to fix the sub-par conditions, which affect teaching and learning. For example, teachers can’t transport laptops or other technology to the portables because there are no paved paths on which to cart them them.

In at least one portable, there was once a tree growing through the floor, she said. The lunchroom can’t accommodate all the students, and many end up not eating or waiting in a long line. They don’t have enough books in some classes, and students have to share texts, Morris said.

“The basic needs of students have been affected,” she said. “Students are not getting the full learning experience.”

Morris said because many parents are Hispanic and poor, struggling to work multiple jobs in many cases, they often are not as engaged in the political process — and their needs are overlooked.

Residents displeased with their school board’s choices have recourse. They can vote to replace members in the next election, state education officials say.

School districts need to show great care when doling out E-SPLOST funds because if voters decide not to approve the tax, systems would likely face financial troubles, education advocates say.

“It is an important revenue source,” said Suggs, with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. “And I don’t know how that revenue source would ever be replaced. Moving forward, this will be an ongoing need.”

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