Photos courtesy of the Columbia County Board of Education
A special election this month will bring Columbia County residents to the polls to vote on an ESPLOST referendum.
Voting is the lifeblood of democracy, and Columbia County residents will have a chance to exercise their right to vote in a special election on March 19. A referendum calling for authorization to issue $160 million in general obligation bonds and a 1-cent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for educational purposes, or ESPLOST, will be on the ballot.
The 2022-2027 ESPLOST would be a continuation of the current 1-cent sales tax that voters previously approved, not an additional 1-cent tax. However, David Dekle, chairman of the Columbia County Board of Education, says, “This is different than past ESPLOSTs. We’re coming to voters a year earlier than normal to ask permission to issue general obligation bonds. Our growth has outpaced our ESPLOST revenue. If the voters approve the referendum, we will be able to issue bonds and start building new schools to meet that growth.”
The tax is shared by all residents as well as anyone who shops in Columbia County, and Columbia County voters continuously have approved the 1-cent sales tax since 1997. The Georgia Legislature established ESPLOST in 1996 to allow voters in a school district to approve a 1-cent sales tax on consumer goods to generate funds for capital projects such as construction of new schools, renovation of existing facilities, technology, purchasing buses or retiring existing debt.
The tax also can be used for facility improvements such as replacing HVAC systems, renovating science labs, repairing parking lots, adding lights, replacing roofs, upgrading auditoriums, resurfacing gym floors and adding new bleachers. The funds cannot be used for instructional supplies or salaries.
Anticipated capital outlay projects include a new high school campus in a centralized location, up to three new elementary schools, two new middle schools, athletic field renovations, bus purchases and technology upgrades.
Construction of the high school campus and an elementary school are the school district’s top priorities. If the referendum passes, then construction of the high school could begin in a year. The school likely would open in three years. Students from all five of the county’s high schools would be eligible to attend the central campus, which would offer classes in areas such as cyber, engineering and energy.
“Students would be at their home school for a portion of the day, then go to this campus,” says Sandra Carraway, superintendent of schools. “By building this campus, we would not be rezoning. We could take advantage of great career preparation opportunities, and it would be cost efficient. We wouldn’t be duplicating courses at our traditional high schools.”
Through block scheduling with 800 students in each of two blocks, the school could serve 1,600 students. They would attend by choice, and upperclassmen potentially could pursue an internship in their career pathway.
“The goal is to respond to the needs of the work force and create a campus in which we can meet our growth needs without building a new high school,” Dekle says. “Education is the number one driver of our economy in Columbia County. It’s the reason people move to Columbia County.”
From 2010-11 to 2017-18, student enrollment in Columbia County grew by about 14 percent, resulting in overcrowded schools. The student population for 2019-2020 is projected to climb by 579 students for a total enrollment of 28,099.
“Our projections are based on historical growth,” Carraway says. “This year we projected our growth at 470 students, but we grew by 580 students.”
The school board expects student enrollment to keep increasing as the county population continues to rise, largely due to anticipated growth at the U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon, which is home to the U.S. Army Cyber Command, the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence and the National Security Agency.
Since 2000, 16 schools have been constructed and paid in full with ESPLOST monies – Lewiston, River Ridge, Baker Place, Cedar Ridge, Evans, Martinez, Parkway, Grovetown and North Harlem elementary schools; Greenbrier, Columbia, Evans, Grovetown, Stallings Island, and Harlem middle schools and Grovetown High School.
Additions also have been built and paid in full with ESPLOST funds at Blue Ridge, Cedar Ridge, Lewiston, River Ridge and Baker Place elementary schools; Grovetown and Evans middle schools and Evans, Greenbrier and Lakeside high schools.
“I think it’s a great investment in the future of Columbia County,” Dekle says of ESPLOST. “If we maintain a great school system, we’ll maintain a great county.”
Should the referendum fall short, Carraway says the school district would have to resort to “more portables, serious rezoning and double sessions” to accommodate growth. “If we have to wait another year, then it would halt planning for a year,” she says.
Early voting is underway. To see a sample ballot with the ESPLOST referendum question before voting, registered voters in Columbia County can visit the Georgia Secretary of State’s website at mvp.sos.ga.gov.
By Betsy Gilliland