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Penny tax for schools on ballot

LAWRENCEVILLE - Enrollment numbers at Gwinnett County Public Schools are at an all-time high and are expected to continue climbing; Buford City Schools is also expecting an increase in enrollment in the coming years.

To meet its building needs, the school district has created "The Plan," an eight-year construction calendar. To fund the projects of "The Plan," the school system is largely counting on the renewal of the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, a 1-cent tax that would be paid by anyone who shops in Gwinnett County.

Buford City Schools is also planning to use the tax dollars to meet its building needs.

The current tax - SPLOST II - will be collected through June 30. If SPLOST III passes, it will start being collected July 1 and will cease collections in five years.

Mike Levengood, the chairman of the 2007 Education SPLOST Renewal Campaign Steering Committee, said the renewal of the tax is of "paramount importance to maintain quality education."

"We believe investing in our schools is important, and that it's a smart investment in our kids," Levengood said.

Gwinnett School Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said "The Plan" is "what it's going to take to get our building program in check."

If renewed, the education SPLOST is expected to generate $1.1 billion. While Gwinnett schools would receive the majority, $18.7 million would go to Buford City Schools.

The Education SPLOST referendum is the last item on the general election ballot. It's also the longest. It explains what Gwinnett and Buford would be allowed to spend money on and what amounts each school system would be allowed to spend.

The school system expects to be able to use funds collected from SPLOST III to cover 40 to 50 percent of the known classroom and capital needs, Wilbanks said.

SPLOST money is expected to generate enough money to cover Phase I of the "The Plan," which includes 26 schools and nine school additions. "The Plan" calls for 27 new schools and three new clusters in the first two of three phases.

The last line of the question on the ballot mentions the passage of the referendum will allow Gwinnett schools to take out a general obligation bond, not to exceed $425 million.

That section is not asking for an increase in taxes or millage rates. If passed, it will allow the school system to take out a bond that will be paid back with the SPLOST money, Wilbanks said. The school system could then start construction sooner, allowing the schools to be completed toward the beginning of the five-year SPLOST collection.

Acquiring such a bond will allow the school to avoid taking out Tax Anticipation Notes, which must be paid in full by the end of the year to avoid penalties, Wilbanks said. The interest rate on the bond would also be fixed.

The district plans to spend 19.4 percent - about $209,956,646 - of the collections on technology improvements.

Other sources of money will have to be used to complete Phase II. General obligation bonds are an option, and in 2009, the school system could acquire the bond debt without increasing millage rates, Wilbanks said.

Some headway has already been made in the building projects. SPLOST II was used to buy the land for 25 future schools. With the price of land increasing each year, the school system saves money by buying acres of land in anticipation of building the new school, Wilbanks said.

SPLOST III, if renewed, will be used to buy land for even more sites, Wilbanks said.

Buford City Schools Superintendent Geye Hamby said the school system plans to add 35 classrooms to Buford Academy, which houses third- through fifth-grade students. The school will also get a cafeteria expansion and a second gymnasium.

Buford Middle School will receive an athletic field, which includes a stadium, bleachers and a field house, Hamby said.

Buford High School will receive 20 additional classrooms and a multi-purpose gymnasium large enough to seat 4,000 to 6,000 people, Hamby said.

The school system may also do minor renovations to Buford Elementary School, which houses kindergarten through second grades, Hamby said.

Because part of Buford is in Hall County, Hamby said the school system expects to get $3 million from Hall County's SPLOST, which has already passed.

These expansions are necessary because there are 500 homes being built within Buford's city limits, and that growth will increase enrollment in the school system, Hamby said.

In Gwinnett County, "The Plan" depends largely upon the renewal of the Education SPLOST. If it does not pass, Wilbanks said the school system will have to look for other ways to meet the building needs.

Building new schools without the SPLOST could mean an increase in a millage rate, Levengood said. Even if the school system decided on another solution, such as going to a year-round schedule, such a change would mean in increase in expenditures, he said.

Hamby said he didn't want to speculate about what would happen if the SPLOST wasn't renewed.

"We'll wait and see what happens on Nov. 7," he said.