FORT VALLEY -- Some Peach County residents don’t feel they’ve had sufficient time to review the facts concerning the proposed 1-cent sales tax to help fund a new high school.
Others say it’s high time that the county’s students get an updated place to learn.
For the Peach County school board, time is money. Waiting any later for a tax referendum could cost the county more than $1 million in special purpose sales tax funding.
“We will not and do not have a healthy county without a healthy school system,” board Chairman Ben McDaniel said.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
The board held an information session this past Thursday at Peach County High School to provide feedback and field questions from residents, but it wasn’t held long enough before the March 17 referendum, Chuck Miller said.
“I think that community input should have actually happened several months ago,” Miller said.
The previous school board voted unanimously last December to write a new educational SPLOST resolution that would replace the current one when it expires this December. To have a clean transition without a lapse, should the proposal be approved, a public vote on a plan would need to take place in March. Otherwise, the tax couldn’t actually be implemented until March 2016, which would result in a loss of about $900,000 per month.
That didn’t deter one of the plan’s opponents, Fort Valley Pastor Daniel Dawsey. Dawsey initially expressed his concerns at the board’s last meeting Feb. 3, when the proposed site for the school at Ga. 49 and Moseley Road was revealed.
“The problem is you’re asking the citizens of this county, with six weeks’ notice, to make decisions that will affect this county 40 or 50 years down the road,” he said at Thursday’s meeting, where about 100 people gathered.
Besides the funds lost during a potential lapse, pending legislation could also raise problems if the referendum is delayed. A proposed transportation bill would change the sales tax on gasoline to an excise tax meant to improve Georgia’s roads and bridges.
Any action wouldn’t take effect until July 1, according to the draft bill, but SPLOST plans in place before then would still collect their 1 cent per gallon, Superintendent Daryl Fineran said.
“That penny on the gallon we get for everything going up the interstate is big,” he said.
Estimates for how much of the estimated $3.6 million of current annual SPLOST revenue comes from gas sales have been hard to find. Fineran said he’s asked other county officials, and no one seems to have a number in mind, which would mean they might not know the true impact until after the money had been lost.
RENOVATE OR REPLACE?
Ben Maddox, assistant superintendent of administrative affairs and operations, gave a presentation to start the meeting.
He outlined issues with the current Peach County High School building and the costs related to repairing them. Some of the issues, like rusting canopies over walkways and holes in the auditorium ceiling, could be fixed, as could the lack of handicap accessibility in the gym and auditorium.
Others, like science and agriculture labs that are smaller than the state’s recommendations, would require new construction.
All in all, the cost of the recommended renovations and modifications would be roughly $9.9 million, with the state kicking in $3.3 million. The state would provide an estimated $13.3 million for a new school.
“The state is screaming at you for new construction,” McDaniel said.
Because the referendum hasn’t been passed, the board didn’t have any solid plans for what the new school would look like or cost. A sample layout for the 174-acre property was presented, and board members used other recent new schools in the state to arrive at a rough estimate of $26 million.
Another major concern related to the current Peach County High School is student safety.
The school has 62 doors on seven academic buildings. Most of those doors can’t be locked because the students travel back and forth between classes and go to the front office if need be.
“The safety and security of this school is an aspect that truly concerns me,” Maddox said.
Peach County High School Principal Bruce Mackey said he tries to use teacher surveillance as much as possible, but educators can only do so much during class time. Both from a layout and technology standpoint, he said there was a time when the current building was “state of the art,” but that time has passed.
“For us, it’s all about giving kids a chance to compete in the 21st century,” he said. “We just live in a different day and age now.”
‘DO IT FOR THE KIDS’
While Fort Valley residents have balked at the notion of a school outside the city limits of their hometown, board members saw a benefit to the location, which still has a Fort Valley address.
“The only equitable solution is to build a school that serves as many people as you possibly can,” board member B.J. Walker said.
The current school is in the southwest portion of the county, some 16 miles from locations in the northeast areas. That’s where Santae Zanders grew up before going to Mercer University on an academic scholarship. He recalled riding the bus from 6:30 to 7:45 each morning, sometimes arriving to school after breakfast had already been served.
“That’s a long time for a kid to be on a bus,” he said.
The new location would be more than 3 miles closer, which would be even more helpful now that school starts at 7:15 a.m. instead of the 8 a.m. start time from Zanders’ school days.
In addition to that, Mickey Adams -- a member of Peach County High School’s first graduating class -- said a new school would provide opportunities for all the county’s students. Fineran noted that all classrooms, from science labs to career prep facilities, would be brought up to state standards in a new building.
“I think the students of Peach County deserve the best, and if you build it, they’ll come,” Adams said. “Do it for the kids. We’ve had our chances.”
To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.