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Ga. Districts To Seek Voter Approval of Sales Tax

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In Henry County, Ga., a fast-growing suburban area south of Atlanta, about 2,000 new students crowd into the schools each year.

Just two years ago, voters passed a $44 million bond issue for school construction, but the district is still coming up short. The situation leaves many of Henry County's 17,000 public school students in portable classrooms. At least five more new schools would be required to deal with the growth.

"We've got more students than we do housing," said Jeff Allie, the assistant comptroller for the Henry County schools. "This county has really grown, and the forecasts are that it is continuing to grow."

So on March 18--the first chance for a special election--Henry County officials hope to be among the first in the state to take advantage of Amendment 2. The measure, approved by Georgia voters last month, allows school districts to impose a 1-cent special-purpose sales tax.

The tax must win approval from county residents and could only be collected for five years before voters would have to vote to extend it.

Bill Barr, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, says that at least 30 of the state's 180 districts will hold such votes in March.

The measure is more difficult for independent city systems, which would have to agree with the surrounding county to hold the referendum. The northern part of Fulton County, for example, is growing, while attendance is declining in the Atlanta city schools. To further confuse matters, Atlanta lies in both Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Florida's Experience

While the property tax is still the predominant funding source used for school construction in Georgia, interest in the sales tax is part of a crusade to find alternative ways to pay for schools.

The sales tax provides property owners with some relief, allows districts to pay for construction up front, and keeps districts from carrying long-term debt. Any extra proceeds from a special-purpose sales tax must be used to retire existing debt or roll back the local property-tax rate.

But a sales tax isn't necessarily any easier to pass than a bond issue.

No one knows that better than school officials in Florida, where the legislature voted last year to give school districts use of the local-option sales tax for capital expenditures.

Six of the first eight sales tax proposals were defeated. The one in Hillsborough County, first defeated in 1995, was put before the voters again during this year's general election. It passed, but many believe that was only because it was packaged in a single proposal that included a new football stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, road improvements, and more police and fire protection.

A sales tax referendum for the Broward County, Fla., schools--the nation's sixth-largest district--also failed last year. The district, growing by 10,000 students a year, will begin holding double sessions next fall and already operates year-round at two schools.

The Broward school board plans to approach local voters again next year, but this time John Quercia, the budget director, suspects it will be for a bond issue.

In Georgia, school officials realize that voters are not eagerly anticipating higher sales taxes. Amendment 2 passed with just 51 percent of the vote.

Henry County actually voted against the measure.

Depends on Economy

School officials in Gwinnett County, Ga., are designing three different building programs, depending on potential revenues. They also will ask voters to go the sales tax route in March.

But even if it is approved, the sales tax, which closely reflects the state of the local economy, is a more unpredictable source of revenue than a property tax.

"You don't know exactly what you're going to collect," said David Crews, the associate superintendent for the 88,800-student Gwinnett district--projected to soon become Georgia's largest.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, predicts that Georgia will have better luck with the sales tax than Florida, because Georgia has a good track record of earmarking lottery revenues to specific education programs. That goodwill, she said, will be a big help.

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