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Future of one-cent education tax in voters' hands

Benjamin Franklin, American statesman, inventor and printer coined a popular phrase during his lifetime of achievement:

"A penny saved is a penny earned."

Even more ubiquitous than quotes by the influential man are the copper-plated zinc coins. They fill ashtrays, pile up in change jars and jingle in pockets across Gwinnett County.

While the unit of currency is the least valuable among coins, its strength lies in numbers.

Locally, the special purpose local option sales tax for education relies on the penny. The future of the tax, which draws from all retail sales in Gwinnett County, is in the hands of voters on Nov. 8.

For the past 15 years, Gwinnett County Public Schools has used the education SPLOST to construct 46 schools, helping the district keep up with enrollment growth. Funds have also been used to make additions and renovations to schools as well as update technology.

The current one-cent sales tax for education expires on June 30, 2012. If approved, SPLOST IV would collect from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2017. In total, the tax could collect $876 million. Of that, $17.1 million is projected to go to Buford City Schools through an intergovernmental agreement approved earlier this year.

Buford has plans for upgrades to its existing schools as well as plans for a multipurpose facility.

In order for Buford City and Gwinnett County Public Schools to receive the tax collections, though, it must first be approved on the Nov. 8 referendum.

During the past three iterations of SPLOST, voters have approved the tax by 60 and 70 percent, allowing public schools to collect hundreds of millions of earmarked dollars toward construction, transportation and technology.

Duluth resident Sean Murphy, a proponent of the sales tax and co-chair of Gwinnett Kids Count, said technology is a big selling point for this five-year extension.

"You see some of these kids, and the lights just don't come on when you hand them a textbook, but you give them a device and it's a whole different learning experience," he said.

Murphy was enthusiastic about the possibilities of eCLASS, an online digital content, diagnostics and analytics program which the district has already begun.

Initial funding for the software came from federal Race to the Top grants, but a bulk of the funding for eCLASS (Content, Learning, Assessment and Support System) would come from new SPLOST dollars.

"If we want to continue to be a great 21st century school, we've got to teach great 21st century methods using something like eCLASS," Murphy said.

Using the system, students can access digital content with a tablet-type device or computer.

During a chamber of commerce luncheon last week, J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, touted the online program as a cost-savings benefit.

The cost of textbooks is about $29 million annually, he said. Using eCLASS, the need for textbooks would be diminished, he said.

Unlike previous extensions of the tax, technology upgrades for SPLOST IV will make up 50 percent of the total anticipated tax revenue.

Other major expenses include the installation of air conditioning systems in all Gwinnett County Public School facility gyms and kitchens.

Annette Rogers, a Duluth resident, took issue with the air conditioning upgrades.

"How much is it projected to cost annually to operate gym AC's in all schools?" Rogers said. "The projects proposed will cause a significant increase to annual operational costs."

It's one reason among many that compels her to vote against the SPLOST extension.

The GCPS volunteer and mother of children who attended the local school district also said she has questions about funding for the proposed technology.

"What is the support, upgrade and maintenance plan for eCLASS?" she said.

The school board voted last month to spend $9.5 million on software that would let officials start moving forward with the program.

School Board Member Daniel Seckinger said that "financially, (eCLASS) will be dwarfed by what we would spend on buying new textbooks."

Murphy said eCLASS is "a big win" for the school district.

"While I'm excited about them building new schools, I'm more excited about eCLASS. I've got a 100-pound seventh-grader that carries a 60-pound book bag to school, and it doesn't look very 21st century to me. This is going to change everything," he said.

In addition to the technology and facility upgrades, the district also has plans to build five new schools, add on to eight existing schools and renovate Duluth Middle School. A total of 433 new classrooms would be built for a student population that is 162,000 and growing.

Murphy said it's about staying successful as a school district.

"Sometimes I think residents may think that Gwinnett is just somehow entitled to have a world-class school system," he said. "We have to keep raising the bar."

Comments

ssilover1 2 years, 9 months ago

I have faith voters with children and grandchildren will vote YES on the education SPLOST. Anyone who has worked in the last ten years knows technology is the 21st century work pivot. Our children must have the best. And, if voters really want to know the truth about how GCPS spends its tax dollars, all they have to do is read the audits that are detailed and current. GCPS is exemplary. Look forward, people. Look to the future and see the possibilities for our kids. Don't let anyone else who doesn't really know facts control our childfren's destiny. 162,000 students are depending on us. And remember, oldsters like me, in just a few years, they will be taking care of us, spending their hard earned money to support the tax base we no longer contribute to.

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kevin 2 years, 9 months ago

It is time for parents to buy their own "technology stuff for their kids. Sure why not ask taxpayers to pick up the tab for these portable devices. I wonder how the kids of past learned anything without these tools. Those kids walked to school, had no a/c, paper and pencil, shared football fields of real grass, and 30+ to a class. Just look at what that generation did for society going to such public schools!! Vote No all day long.

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OutofMoney 2 years, 9 months ago

The audits for the most part have been done by people assigned by JAW's and his staff. I am sure there have been, but I do not recall where there has been a audit any other way. JAW's knows to claim he will look at it before a outside party gets involved. I still say they need to be audited from the outside. Ugly things keep crawling out from under evry rock that has been turned over but the powers in this school system have a way to make them go away without a REAL audit.

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fred68 2 years, 9 months ago

Kevin - from the GCPS website: "Will students be able to bring their own technology— iPods, tablets, smartphones— to use in class? In the future, we anticipate students will use their own technology more and more as part of the learning process. The school system is researching how to best integrate personal technology devices into classroom instruction."

Buying a device for every student isn't a part of SPLOST.

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ssilover1 2 years, 9 months ago

To fred68--thank you for clearing that up. I think the readers fail to reaize that the technology will deep and wide and all schools will benefit.

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