Few stakeholders gather for ESPLOST meeting

The crowd was sparse at Southwest High School on Tuesday evening, and new Bibb County school Superintendent Curtis Jones took that as a good sign.

About 20 people showed up for a public hearing to discuss plans for the continuation of a penny sales tax dedicated to education, but most of them were school board members or district officials.

“I think it’s one of two things. Either they are satisfied ... or they don’t know about it,” Jones said of the low number of stakeholders at the meeting.

Because Jones was confident in the measures his staff took to publicize the hearing, he said he would take the low attendance as a sign there’s “nothing on the list that’s objectionable” or nothing of great interest that’s been left off.

Jason Daniel, the district’s executive director for capital projects, presented a list of potential projects that could be funded by the tax, which would begin Jan. 1, 2016, and replace the current tax that ends Dec. 31. The tax would have to be approved by voters Nov. 3 after the referendum is approved by the school board.

Chief among the projects is a new middle and high school campus at the current Northeast High School site. The new school would replace Northeast High and Appling Middle schools, both built in 1963 and among the oldest in the county.

The schools would require $22 million to be renovated, and Daniel said the district actually needs smaller schools for that zone.

“Right now, Northeast and Appling are oversized for their student population, grossly oversized actually,” he said.

Daniel estimated the full list of projects would cost an estimated $148 million with the district generating between $144 and $150 million in sales tax revenue over five years. There are other funding options available for some of the projects, and Daniel said bonds wouldn’t be recommended because the new school would be the most expensive endeavor and wouldn’t happen immediately.

“I would want a little bit of time for design ... and that would give time for collections,” he said.

Playground improvements, renovations and school security upgrades also are on the list. Property acquisition also is a part of the proposal, but Daniel said that was more of a precaution.

“Just putting it on there as a placeholder so we’d have the option, if needed,” he said.

The district had received 66 completed surveys from community members as of last count Monday, and school board members will get their first preview of the results at Thursday’s board meeting before the survey closes June 5. The surveys allow the public to designate which projects it thinks should be pursued.

Board President Thelma Dillard, who attended the meeting along with board members Lester Miller and Sue Sipe, requested that board members get updates as soon as possible.

“I’d like to have time to look at all this,” she said.

A second meeting will be held at Howard High School at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.