School SPLOST has opposition

Voters question new funding for troubled Atlanta, DeKalb districts.

Four metro Atlanta school systems seeking $2 billion through a sales tax renewal face voter opposition because of cheating and spending scandals.

People question whether more money should be handed over to systems in turmoil — notably Atlanta Public Schools and the DeKalb County School System.

“I am encouraging everybody I know to vote ‘no,’ ” Tucker resident Cheryl Miller said. “For a lot of people, it seems like a good idea and will help children, and a ‘yes’ vote is a no-brainer. But we have got to send a message to the school board until they can prove that they can be financially responsible with the money that we have already given them by way of our tax dollars.”

The four districts, which also include Fulton County and Decatur, will learn their fate on Nov. 8. During the 15-year life of SPLOST, dozens of schools have been built and dozens more have received infrastructure upgrades in the districts.

The tax would be extended for five more years, beginning in 2013, to pay for new schools and other improvements.

Voters in at least four other metro counties are also considering penny sales taxes to fund educational construction. However, Atlanta residents, who pay among the highest taxes in the country, will be asked three times to raise their taxes between November and July. In March, they will vote on an extension of a 1-cent sales tax to upgrade the city’s water and sewer system, and later deal with another penny tax on the transportation bill.

When the school districts prepared to move forward with the SPLOST vote, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed argued that APS should have pursued “some sort of fractional tax” that, when combined with a presumed penny transportation tax, would keep the city’s overall sales tax rate competitive with Charlotte’s 8.46 percent. Atlanta could have a 9 percent tax, the state’s highest.

Tasha Walker plans to vote “yes,” but said she will hold school officials more accountable in their spending. She said her daughter’s school, DeKalb Elementary School of the Arts, was overlooked for upgrades in the last two SPLOST votes.

“The dollars need to be spread out evenly,” said Walker, co-founder of the group Advocates on Behalf of Children. “I am not against it, as long as the dollars are going to be used in the proper manner, and not laundered and wasted. I could be a friend of SPLOST IV, but, if things are not done properly, I can be an enemy.”

Voters appear weary of the negative developments that have surrounded the Atlanta and the DeKalb school districts. DeKalb has been tied to a financial scandal that involves former superintendent Crawford Lewis, now facing racketeering charges over the alleged improper use of $80 million in school construction funds — which was SPLOST money.

“If you are giving money to a body of people and see it is being a wasted, you don’t continue to give that group of people more money,” Miller said. “I don’t think we have a problem with money; we have a problem with money going to the wrong places.”

However, the Lewis allegations, as well as a recent $100 million lawsuit against builder Heery International, are separate matters and have not hampered the district’s ability to start or finish projects, said Walter Woods, DeKalb Schools spokesman.

Marshall Orson, who lives in Druid Hills, had yet another take in how the vote for educational funding should be addressed. He said the best way to send a message to the school board is to vote the members out of office, not block a SPLOST.

“This is about the needs of these school systems,” Orson said. “If we don’t address them, we will lose momentum and send a message to our kids, students and educators that we are not willing to invest in them.”

Each of the districts was required to put the SPLOST on the ballot at the same time. Because they are independent school systems, Atlanta and Decatur must rely on passage by voters in their respective counties to receive sales tax funds.

“I think you will see it pass in the city of Decatur by a large margin, but my best guess overall is that it is even money,” Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd said. “I hope people get out and vote, but DeKalb and Atlanta have been through so much that have kept them in the news. Those things make it extremely hard for us, because we are tied to them. We are so small, we can’t do it ourselves.”

District plans for SPLOST money are ambitious. DeKalb is pursuing $475 million, including $144 million to replace seven elementary schools. Fulton County is asking voters for $912 million, $281 million to address overcrowded schools by building new ones.

“If they don’t pass, the only other option would be to raise taxes,” said APS Superintendent Erroll Davis, whose district is seeking $513 million, part of which will build new schools in Midtown and Buckhead. “My sense is the voter should understand that it is a much more efficient process for visitors, commuters and others to pay than it is for us to put the burden on the property owners.”

Davis said Atlanta’s building projects are not contingent upon SPLOST passage. He said the projects will get done anyway; SPLOST just makes it easier.

“It is not a yes or no on these projects; it is what will be the [funding] source, because the projects have to go forward,” Davis said.