Thursday, February 3, 2011
An open letter to board members (Re: SPLOST)
Now in the midst of major redistricting, a superintendent search, a SACS audit and the worst budget crisis to come along in years, I want to warn the board not to become lax in SPLOST III decisions. Between the padded construction budgets, canceled projects and a crash in the building market, DCSS finds it has extra SPLOST money to spend. It is a wonderful position to be in but it could backfire if priorities are not well defined and transparent.
First, SPLOST—Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (1 cent/dollar) is a contract between the voters of the county and the school system. The voters agreed to pay an extra one cent on the dollar for five years to fund projects the system proposes and contracts to implement. Funds may not be used for operating expenses. Changes in spending, if necessary, may be made by the board. The only effective means of contract enforcement, that I am aware of, is a citizen lawsuit against the county entity. SACS will not judge, neither will the state.
Historically the DCSS board has a poor track record in managing SPLOST funds.
SPLOST I provided much needed new schools in a burgeoning south DeKalb. Things went pretty smoothly during those first five years. SPLOST II was, in my opinion, a train wreck. In a competitive and adversarial way, the board voted to commit more funds than were forecast to be collected. The administration opted for a sleight of hand called “above & below the line” funding and the interesting concept of allocating maybe 80% of a schools needs assessment.
SPLOST II resulted in the tax payers paying for two audits, a confusion of who was getting what and a scatter-shot approach to capital improvements. There was never a reference to the legal contract nor was it ever used as a framework. Mismanagement has resulted in the DeKalb taxpayers holding a very expensive lottery ticket. We are still waiting for the Heery-Mitchell lawsuit to land on our number and produce a big pay-out. So far the balls are still spinning in air and the years are beginning to pass.
Most notably in SPLOST II, the administration failed to produce a vision of goals and priorities. . Elected official failed to provide effective oversight. (Many couldn’t/didn’t even read the spreadsheets) Millions were spend on Career Tech additions but the instructional pieces were ignored. Demographic reports were paid for and ignored. Pet projects & partisan politics seem to govern numerous allocations.
My personal last straw was when I asked for proof of how Columbia High School could possibly be slated for a $25M priority renovation-completion in SPLOST III because I could find no minutes showing a complete renovation had ever been approved in the first place. My requests for proof of the allocation were ignored by all. The board voted to approve the Capital Improvement Plan we know today. As it turns out the board-condoned “deferred-work” was a canary in the mine of alleged illegal activities uncovered last spring.
All this is history, but the discussion during a fall Called Board Meeting concerns me. The discussion of how best to allocate $30+ million in surplus SPLOST III funds was unfocused and lax in determining real needs. Thirty million may not go far in meeting the needs of our school system but I’ll be darned if I want it to go to pet projects, done deals or used to buy votes. We’ve been down that road.
There are new faces on the board. We need new actions when it comes to the very big pile of money we call SPLOST. Images are tarnished; trust is nonexistent, challenges abound and the board is over-worked but if you want a SPLOST IV then please, be very honest & transparent in dealing with the last of the SPLOST III funds. Please demonstrate priority need and an over-arching goal.
The last thing this school system needs is additional litigation.