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School board weighs priorities for SPLOST

POSTED: May 31, 2012 8:12 p.m.

With the current special purpose local option sales tax for education (E-SPLOST) expiring at the end of this month, Effingham County School System leaders are working to prioritize projects to fund with the next E-SPLOST.

Known as SPLOST 4, the penny tax for education will begin next month and be collected through June 2017. Estimates are this latest SPLOST, approved by Effingham County voters in 2010, could generate $6 million-$8 million per year for Effingham County schools.

SPLOST projects, in tandem with the school district’s facilities needs, were discussed at the board of education’s recent retreat.

"The board certainly has a lot of options. We also have to look at what we can afford," Superintendent Randy Shearouse said.

With the school district receiving declining amounts of state funds and local property tax revenue, it is depending more on SPLOST dollars for expenses that used to be part of the general fund. The tentative list of projects includes maintenance such as new roofs, kitchen/cafeteria renovations and heating/air conditioning system replacements at several schools.

Also, millions of dollars from the 2012-17 SPLOST will go toward technology in Effingham County schools — costs that used to be covered by Georgia lottery funds before the state cut back to funding only pre-kindergarten programs and the HOPE scholarship through the lottery. The school board has tentatively allotted $4 million of SPLOST funds for textbooks and $4 million for new school buses over the next five years.

"I can’t see SPLOST 4 being as exciting as SPLOST 3," said Slade Helmly, director of administrative services. "It’s the reality where we find ourselves. With our needs that we’ve shifted from the general fund property tax burden over to SPLOST, we’re buying boring stuff like roofs and air conditioners and buses — nothing exciting."

With the number of enrolled students levelingoff in recent years, overcrowding is not an issue for most Effingham County schools. However, Blandford Elementary’s projected 2012-13 enrollment of 825 students exceeds its capacity of 750, and Effingham County High School’s projected enrollment of 1,965 is near its capacity of 2,000.

Although building a third high school in the county is part of the school system’s five-year plan, adding on to ECHS is seen as a more affordable option. Construction of a new high school would cost several million dollars more than adding onto an existing one, thereby likely forcing the school district to pass a bond referendum to come up with the additional funds.

"I don’t think that would be a very popular idea right now," Shearouse said. "The option of building a wing at Effingham County High School certainly is feasible financially. It’s a very viable option, I think, with the monies we’re looking at and without passing a bond."

One elementary school possibility is for the school district to replace its oldest school, Rincon Elementary. Built in 1964, RES is also a safety concern for some because of its location along busy Highway 21.

"You could never build a school there now," Shearouse said.

An option is to build a new Rincon Elementary School on land the school district owns on Fort Howard Road. The district could offset a portion of the construction costs by selling the existing RES property.

"If you could build whatever you need for, say, $12 million, and you could get half of that from the state, and suppose somebody wanted to pay $3 million or $2 million or whatever for (the old) Rincon (Elementary), you could very well be in a brand-new elementary school for $2-3 million out of pocket," Helmly said.

"That’s not a bad deal," Shearouse said.

The example Helmly used of applying for the state to cover roughly half of the cost could apply to any number of projects, as long as the school district can identify the need for them. He suggested the school board always keep in mind how much local funding would be needed for any construction project, and Shearouse recommended setting up an account and dedicating funds each month for facilities needs.

Helmly estimated the school board could set aside about $200,000 a month, or $2.4 million a year, for facilities.

Helmly used the example of building an addition to Effingham County High for $5 million and a new elementary school for $12 million. If the state covered about half that $17 million cost, the school district would need roughly $8.5 million in local funds for just those two projects.

"So, to get that $8.5 million we might need in five years. It would take three or four years in accumulated SPLOST receipts to be able to fund that," Helmly said. "So keep that in the back of your mind."

If any schools do see an enrollment boom in the near future, the least expensive option to alleviate the overcrowding would simply be to redistrict the school zones.

"You don’t have that much space at any of the schools to do a whole lot of shifting, though," said school board chairman Lamar Allen. "I’m talking about the next two years. More than likely, every school is going to grow some."

The board of education projects a $1.6 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year, which it plans to make up by transferring funds remaining from the current E-SPLOST. Board member Mose Mock asked how much would then be left in the existing E-SPLOST fund. Helmly estimated there would be between $500,000 and $1 million remaining.

Helmly added that "the debt the school board carries is practically nothing." When the new SPLOST begins, the school district’s only debt will be the $5.5 million remaining on its lease-purchase agreement for Marlow Elementary.

Shearouse emphasized that the retreat was a "brainstorming" session and that the E-SPLOST projects and priorities remain a work in progress.

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