ESPLOST 6, to be voted on in May, is bigger than ESPLOST 5, with the school system hoping to raise a total of $59 million in tax revenue, $24 million more than the ESPLOST passed five years ago .
The Habersham County School Board discussed the upcoming ESPLOST vote during its business session on Thursday. The superintendent and council say this year’s ESPLOST could lead the school system to be debt-free by the end of the five-year sales tax and better prepare the school system for growth.
What is ESPLOST?
Georgia enacted ESPLOST in 1996, giving school districts across the state the ability, with voter approval, to pass a 1% sales tax with revenue earmarked for capital expenditures. ESPLOST 5, which was set to raise $35 million for Habersham Schools, expires at the end of this year.
While the school board presents ESPLOST 6 as a renewal, each ESPLOST is a separate tax measure that can last up to five years. If approved by voters, Habersham County’s current 7% sales tax rate would remain the same: if rejected, the county sales tax rate would drop to 6%.
The county school board argues the tax keeps property taxes low for residents. More than half of ESPLOST 5’s budget covered bond payments to repay Habersham Central High School, renovations to Habersham Ninth Grade Academy and Fairview Elementary to the tune of $14.8 million.
“What would our school system look like without ESPLOST? asked Habersham Schools Superintendent Matthew Cooper. “These $14.8 million would have been paid by the owners. It’s me, it’s every member of the board, it’s some of you in the room, we would have paid that amount of money out of our property taxes. All of this would have been paid for by us, the owners.
Less than half – around 44% – of the proposed budget for ESPLOST 6 would be allocated to repaying these bonds. Cooper says after ESPLOST 6, the school system would be completely debt free.
BOE and superintendent support
Cooper also says the majority of upgrades the school system has seen are due to ESPLOST, from replacing old buses, end-of-life technology and software and school renovations, to being able to pay staff and teachers. specialized thanks to ESPLOST offsetting other costs. Cooper even went on to say that Hazel Grove Elementary and Woodville Elementary wouldn’t exist without ESPLOST funds. He says that without ESPLOST, the school system would have had to close and consolidate these schools to save money in its general budget.
Board of Education Chairman Russ Nelson said while the upgrades might sound like good things, many upgrades, like school-purchased Chromebooks, have been mandated by the government to that all students have access to online tests. Cooper says that without ESPLOST, the system would have had to reduce its staff to pay for purchases.
“The only way we could have [gotten] this technology [without ESPLOST] is we would have to eliminate a bunch of teachers,” Cooper said. “We wouldn’t have our mental health specialists. We probably couldn’t afford to have resource officers. . . what I mean is that without ESPLOST, this school system would be very different.
When the board last met and discussed ESPLOST, Cooper announced that ESPLOST 6 would set aside specific funds to prepare for the growth of Habersham Schools. He presented some of those plans to the board on Thursday.
Cooper says the system is preparing for population growth, as well as growing student needs. He says that with the growing population in Habersham County, schools will need more classrooms and there will be greater demand for preschool and special education programs.
ESPLOST has a total of $15 million allocated for the potential construction of an “early learning center” for preschoolers and preschoolers with special needs, as well as a the addition of classrooms in elementary and middle schools in the system.
Cooper says the high school was built with growth in mind and is on track to meet the needs of a growing student population.
While details of the plan, like project costs and growth calculations, have yet to be set, Cooper says they will dive into the plan’s data and finances at a later date.