Clayton County voters will decide March 19 whether to approve a $280 million 5-year Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for Schools sought by Superintendent Morcease Beasley. HYOSUB SHIN/HSHIN@AJC.COM

Clayton to vote on new schools, expanded Pre-K in SPLOST referendum

Clayton County residents will head to the polls in just over a week to decide whether to continue paying millions in a sales tax for schools and if the time has come for an academy dedicated specifically to career and college prep.

The south metro school district is the latest in North Georgia to seek an extension of its educational special purpose local option sales tax or SPLOST. The March 19 referendum seeks to raise $280 million over the next five years through the continuation of a 1 penny sales tax for schools. Residents have approved such taxes five times.

School Superintendent Morcease Beasley said the system, which he anticipates will grow by about 500 students a year, has ambitious plans for the money.

On the to-do list are the typical SPLOST requests: three new schools with STEM programs — one for elementary, middle and high school students — as well as more buses to retire older vehicles and updated HVAC systems. The district also hopes to set aside money for an early learning system to serve some of the 50 percent or so of Clayton pre-schoolers who are not in Pre-K programs.

But the system also plans to use the funds to help it catch up with the popular career and college-prep academies that have rolled out across the metro area, Beasley said. A Clayton academy dedicated to careers such as artificial intelligence, aviation and logistics and transportation — key industries for a community that is home to the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International — will make students more competitive in the workplace of tomorrow.

“Clayton is kind of behind the ball when it comes to a college and career academy,” he said. “Every school system has one, so it’s my commitment Clayton will also be a district of high performance. It’s time for Clayton to come into the 21st century and ensure that our surrounding school systems are not providing their students opportunities that we are not.”

Clayton Schools has partnered with Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance, a business group focusing on promoting economic development around Hartsfield, to expose students to available options after graduation.

Other selling points, Beasley believes, will be construction of an arena at a new Morrow High School and more access to technology.

The new Morrow High will give Clayton something it currently doesn’t have: space for graduation ceremonies.

“We always rent venues for our graduations,” he said. “Through this referendum we’re going to have a 6,000-seat arena that allows us to not just have competitive sporting events, but to host our graduations from here on out.”

The district also will use part of the money to purchase Chromebooks. Clayton recently launched an effort to ensure every student has access to the laptop computers by 2022, starting with 1,000 of the devices handed out this school year, Beasley said.

“The continued implementation of that initiative is predicated on funds from SPLOST,” he said.

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