BOE: Voters to decide if school district can sell bonds

SUWANEE - The Gwinnett County Board of Education adopted a resolution Thursday that will allow voters to decide if the school district can sell general obligation bonds and continue constructing classrooms without interruption.

Voters will decide on Feb. 5 if Gwinnett County Public Schools will be allowed to sell up to $750 million in bonds. The money would be used to fund construction, technology, land purchases and other capital needs.

The bonds would be repaid at an interest rate of no more than 5.5 percent using property taxes collected for debt service. Taxes would not increase because the board could keep the debt service millage at its current rate of 1.3 mills, Chief Financial Officer Rick Cost said.

The money would be used to fund Phase II of "The Plan," Gwinnett County Public Schools' schedule for getting its building needs in check by 2014. Phase II includes eight new schools and 10 additions that would open in 2010 and 2011, Cost said.

Schools that are opening in 2008 and 2009 are funded through a 1-percent education sales tax approved by voters last year.

Although the tax allows the district to collect up to $1.1 billion in a 5-year period, Cost said the current estimate based on market trends shows the district will collect $850 million to $875 million.

"The Plan" is based on the district's current need for classrooms. If voters do not approve this referendum, the district wouldn't be able to open new schools or additions for at least two years, Cost said.

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks told the board members Thursday evening the bonds are "sorely needed to let the building program remain on schedule."

Board member Robert McClure said if the referendum were to fail, the district would "not just be treading water. ... (They'd be) losing ground."

Although the district's enrollment this year was below projections, the system still grew by about 4,000 students - roughly the size of Mill Creek High School, Cost said.

In other business, the board approved its 2008 legislative program, a list of requests that will be shared with state legislators.

One item the board agreed was important was its desire to maintain local control over revenue sources. In light of House Speaker Glenn Richardson's proposal to eliminate ad valorem taxes in favor of an expanded sales and services tax, board members felt it was important to adopt a position on local revenue sources.

Board members Robert McClure and Daniel Seckinger said they are most concerned with how Richardson's plan would affect the way government works and will not support anything that results in the loss of local control.

The board also heard an update on the redistricting process. Some of the proposed attendance zones have changed to keep the Hamilton Mill community intact and further relieve overcrowding at Norton Elementary School. The new maps are available on the district's Web site.

The community can address the board about the boundary proposals at public forums scheduled for 7 p.m. on Nov. 13 and 15.