Bibb voters to decide on extending education sales tax

If Bibb County residents vote to extend an education-related sales tax proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot, they’ll be approving a to-do list that includes five new elementary schools, enhanced security and technology and several new athletic facilities.

Those items are on the list of the school system’s 2010-2015 capital improvement program, which seeks to raise $198 million from an extra penny of sales tax on the dollar during five years, beginning in 2011.

Bob Flowers, the program’s administrator for the school system, said the system has shown it’s gotten plenty of bang for its buck with the two previous education local option sales tax campaigns.

“I think we’ve demonstrated that with the past two programs,” Flowers said. “We’ve made major, major improvements that we’ve sorely needed. This program would continue that. We’ve got some old buildings, some of which are 50, 75 years old. They’ve needed to be replaced for some time now. (The ELOST) would give us some great benefits.”

Topping the list would be five high-performance elementary schools — four new schools and rebuilding Heard Elementary. Each of the five schools would cost between $14.7 million and $15.3 million.

All of the Bibb County schools would get upgrades, both with security enhancements and new technology. In fact, technology improvements would be the biggest single-ticket cost, at $20 million, and would include classroom computers, new security camera systems, business management systems and other upgrades.

Gene Dunwody Jr. is co-chairman of a local citizens group in support of the proposal. Dunwody said making improvements now and upgrading the facilities would ultimately extend the life of the schools and be more cost-efficient in the long run.

“In my opinion, Bibb County got far behind on its construction,” he said. “It didn’t use (ELOSTs). This one would finish things that didn’t get finished in the last two. The easiest way to accomplish this would be” with the sales tax.

Some voters have grumbled about another new sales tax campaign when the last one hasn’t been completely finished yet. Others have said they don’t like approving more money for the school system when some of its schools have lagging test scores or haven’t made Adequate Yearly Progress.

Jerry Smith, a retiree whose children attended Bibb County schools in the past, said the millions the system has spent with the previous two ELOSTs haven’t translated into better test scores or higher graduation rates.

“I don’t think Bibb County’s performance has earned an extension for this tax matter,” he said. “They’ve spent millions the last several years, but the academic performance has shown no improvement over that time. ... Voting no might send a message that (the system) needs to do something about discipline and elevate academic achievement.”

Dunwody said that while a new or improved facility won’t necessarily raise test scores, it does help.

“There’s been a lot of criticism of the test scores,” Dunwody said. “New schools won’t solve these problems, but having a new, safe, well-lit facility will not hurt test scores.”

Dunwody, who has five children at Bibb County schools, said the improvements will help Bibb County schools remain on par with other school systems around the state.

The new facilities would be beneficial in other ways, he said.

“(The money) will benefit the community, especially the construction industry,” Dunwody said, adding that it would be a boon to the local economy. ... You stabilize property values with good schools in your district. ... It’s kind of a no-brainer. People who would vote against it must be very, very angry.”

While some voters may not want to pay an extra penny of sales tax on purchases during the recession, Flowers pointed to a recent study conducted by Georgia Tech and commissioned by the school system. The study indicated that a little more than 71 percent of the sales tax money generated comes from people who live outside Bibb County.

“We’re fortunate that we’re a hub, so we get a lot of traffic from outside,” he said. “If there’s no (ELOST), the needs will still be there. The only other way to address this would be from property taxes, which means the taxpayer would pay it all.”

Dunwody said he believes that Bibb County residents need to be forward thinking when it comes to the tax, noting that the improvements will still be helping the community for the next 50 years or more.

“I think (people who’d vote no) are punishing the wrong people,” he said. “People might be upset with the administration or the superintendent or the Board of Education, but that doesn’t have any merit and is short-sighted on their part. Those buildings will be here long after we’re gone.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.