Sunday, October 30, 2011
To SPLOST or not to SPLOST
The Get Schooled blog at the AJC has a conversation going about politician's views on SPLOST - the penny sales tax up for renewal for school construction. Former mayor Shirley Franklin stated,
"I have been surprised at the opposition toward the education SPLOST on the Nov. 8 ballot in Atlanta, Fulton, DeKalb, Decatur, Gwinnett, Buford, Cherokee and Henry."
Given the stark reduction in state funds for education and the depressed housing market, schools are in desperate straits, and there would seem to be no more critical time to renew the penny sales tax for construction and capital improvements than now.
Among those who have not signed on — Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the business community. In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year, Reed said the penny — which has helped build or renovate 84 city schools or other buildings in the last 15 years— instead needs to go to a regional transportation plan expected to be put to voters next year.
Reed did not want the school system to seek to renew its SPLOST because Atlanta residents will be asked three times to raise their taxes between November and July. In March, Atlantans will vote on an extension of a 1-cent sales tax to upgrade the city’s water and sewer system, and later deal with another penny tax on the transportation bill. If both were to pass, Reed warned that the city would have the state’s highest sales tax at 9 percent and would be at a competitive disadvantage.
There is a standard mantra among SPLOST supporters that somehow this is "free" money - or at least money we collect a large portion of from our visitors, therefore, why not? I have some personal thoughts on why not:
1) We are in the middle of a $100 million lawsuit over SPLOST II construction that has cost us $15+ million and committed us to another $19+ million in legal fees - which comes from the General Operating budget - not the SPLOST budget — thus taking directly from the money earmarked for our children's education. We need to resolve these lawsuits, identify exactly how deep the corruption goes and put practices in place to prevent future mishaps. Further, SPLOST money, projects and discussions take time, energy and attention away from the main task of the school board: Educating Students. Our test scores show the dismal job our board has done in this endeavor.
2) We have criminal charges looming and criminal trials yet to take place involving SPLOST and our former superintendent, our former COO and others. This is bad news and will require additional resources and attention as the trial moves forward. (BTW, these trials can now move forward, as the decision has been handed down that Lewis can keep his Alston & Bird attorney. Read about it and download the decision here.) Compounding the taxpayers cost for defending our employees, is the fact that taxpayers are also funding the plaintiff in this story; the taxpayers themselves via the District Attorney's office. Finish the corruption cases and identify and release any and all other 'players' that emerge during the trial and then revisit restructuring the system. This includes restructuring the Auditing and Accounting offices. Any future SPLOST dollars should be monitored, reviewed and paid by an independent firm, with citizen oversight and transparency via the Online Check Register.
3) The current plan is not focused. There are projects promised in SPLOST IV that were listed as political favors for a chosen few who are very organized and very vocal. We will still have schools with great needs that will not get their needs addressed in full. Like our curriculum, the project list is vast, yet vague. A more focused, educationally-driven plan needs drawn. We need to give our new superintendent a year to develop that plan. As it stands now, she will be forced to redesign an educational system within the confines of the structures currently planned on the table. I would like to offer Dr. Atkinson the chance to first create a vision for educating our 100,000 children and then formulate a brick and mortar and technology plan to support it. SPLOST IV as it stands will tie her hands. What if she decides that a superb vocational/tech high school would feed a demand? She can't create it, as the SPLOST plan must be followed as written for the vote. What if she has other great ideas and would like to propose facilities to house those ideas? She won't have that option. She must work within the buildings as planned by SPLOST IV. By voting for SPLOST IV, we will be forcing our new superintendent to effectively work backwards with her hands tied and one eye closed. Allow her the time and the freedom to formulate a vision and a plan to turn this ship around in every way, for every child.
GeorgiaSPLOST.org points out the drawback of SPLOST fundraising, which I believe is what has happened consistently in DeKalb. "In practice the SPLOSTs combine many projects into one referendum. Often many of the projects do not enjoy broad community support but are included in the list as a favor to certain special interests. The voters often have to vote for five or ten projects that they oppose in order to pass the two or three that they strongly support. Another problem with current practice is that SPLOST referendums are often held concurrent with elections with low expected voter turnout and the special interests promoting the SPLOST can have a greater effect on the referendum." This is why every SPLOST passes. There is always a very vocal group promised a project they have dreamed of for years. This group will promote the referendum with fervor, ensuring that it passes in order to have their own dreams realized, regardless of how inequitably the rest of the money is spent or (mis)managed.
As far as Shirley Franklin and others go, I find it interesting that some politicians get up in arms when voters question handing hundreds of millions of dollars over to a school board that has failed miserably in it's one and only true task: Educating our children. Why is it that people like the good mayor will advocate for new buildings, but not advocate for great reading and math scores? Why don't politicians feel compelled to make it Job #1 to provide a highly qualified, educated workforce to entice new business to incubate or locate in Georgia? Why are they not ripping their hair out in angst over being rated #49 in the US in education year after year? Glitzy buildings don't educate students – gifted teachers do. We need to make our universities train up the best teachers in the country and then we need to pay them well so that they will stay in Georgia and teach our own children.
The leadership in DeKalb has proven that when given bags of money, they will spend most of their energy finding ways to divert that money to their own and their friends' pockets and neighborhoods. Watch any board meeting in DeKalb; over half the time is spent discussing construction contracts. Improve test scores by hiring great teachers and principals and then supporting them in their task by paying them well, offering consistent, quality training, in-class support staff and smaller class sizes. When we have a functional educational system, then our construction needs will be easy to identify and voters will support those needs.
Form follows function. We need to get our function – which is to educate – in order before we start planning the form (buildings). Maybe next time...