Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vote NO on DeKalb e-SPLOST

Dear Dunwoody Voters,

What's to our benefit, and what's to our detriment in the upcoming e-SPLOST vote?

First, a background on SPLOST.  Every time you make a taxable purchase in DeKalb County, including Dunwoody, 1% of the 7% tax you pay goes to the DeKalb School System.  This 1% generates approximately $90 million a year.  The SPLOST is on your ballot every five years, with that five year date being in two weeks (Nov 8, 2012).  The DeKalb school board comes up with a list of how the SPLOST funds will be spent.  For example, last SPLOST the Board spent $33 million for a new central office.  Dubbed "The Palace" by critics, the central office is home to what I feel is the most bloated central office staff in the State of Georgia.  Imagine what good that $33 million could have done at your local school. 
Millions of dollars were wasted and spent improperly by the school system.  Ongoing legal actions from the current SPLOST (it expires this year) continue to cost students millions of dollars. It’s no secret that DeKalb has not handled our money well.  With the exception of a few individuals, many of the people who mishandled SPLOST funds the past few years still work for DeKalb. We have a new superintendent, but I’d like to see she does on the job for a year before handing over half a BILLION dollars.  Let’s see the new superintendent clean house at the central office and rid the system of bad teachers and principals before handing over half a BILLION dollars.

What does SPLOST mean to the Dunwoody resident?  First off, it means you will continue to pay 1% on taxable purchases in DeKalb County to "benefit" the DeKalb School System if SPLOST passes this November.  If SPLOST fails, you will pay 1% less sales tax in DeKalb.  More specifically, the next SPLOST calls for a new Austin Elementary school to be built.  Why Austin?  Although our school board representative Nancy Jester insisted on neutral language calling simply for "a new elementary school" in Dunwoody, other members of the Board insisted on specifying a school.  They chose Austin as that specific school due to Austin having the lowest rating in a recent site inspection.  Make no mistake, the Austin facility is not perfect, but it is not the worst elementary school in Dunwoody.  Why did Austin receive the lowest score then?  It's a complicated formula, but in summary, Austin 'earned' the lowest score because it does not have doors on the classrooms and it has a small library.  The school was built using an open classroom design.  Has this design affected student performance at Austin?  The answer to that is obviously 'no'.  By comparison, the Chesnut Elementary school is in much more need to be replaced. 

What about the Chamblee High School / Magnet school?  The SPLOST lists Chamblee as a project, but this is not entirely true.  Chamblee High School will be built if SPLOST fails or passes.  The school system borrowed funds from a Federal program to build a new Chamblee.  The SPLOST funds would be used to repay the Federal loan. 

What about the new state law that reduces the DeKalb board from 9 to 7 members?  It is true that as currently written, the Board would not be reduced to 7 members if SPLOST fails (due to the current language in that Bill).  Our legislators who successfully passed that piece of legislation are fully prepared to amend the language to make sure the Board is reduced to 7 members should SPLOST fail on the November 2012 ballot.

What if SPLOST passes?  If SPLOST passes, a new Austin elementary school will be built within five years, most likely within two years.

Where would it be built?  That is a tough question to answer, with a few moving parts.  First, we in Dunwoody are voting on a land acquisition bond.  If that land bond passes, the City of Dunwoody may acquire a 19 acre tract of land off N Shallowford Road; referred to as the Emory hospital site (it has a pending contract on the land, contingent upon the passing of said bond).  This piece of land is about 2.5 miles south of Austin, near '285'.  If that land bond fails, then there is a chance the school system would acquire this 19 acre tract of land for the 'new' Austin.  The land is vacant and easy to build on without disrupting classes at the current Austin.  There are obvious concerns moving a school out of the current neighborhoods.  The entire Dunwoody cluster would go through another redistricting.  If the city's bond passes, there are very few other tracts of land available large enough for a new school.

How much land is needed for a new school?  Based on the 900-student model, the State of Georgia requires 14 acres.  The State has granted waivers in the past, but no guarantees. You will hear from some people that “a State official” says Austin can be rebuilt on site.  Okay, sounds good, but the DeKalb School Board makes that decision, not a State employee.

Why 900 students?  DeKalb has decided to build 900-student sized elementary schools to maximize student funding. Until the State's funding method changes, don't expect DeKalb to change its mind.  Our current governor has said he will review the funding formula, and local State Senator Fran Millar has said he will work to change the funding. But this takes time.  I don't see anything changing at the state level for at least two years.

How big is the current Austin campus?  10.4 acres
How big is the Chesnut campus?  12.4 acres

If SPLOST passes, could Austin be rebuilt at its current location?  Yes, but two, perhaps three things need to happen.  One, the State needs to grant a waiver to build a new school close to the GA Power electric lines.  Two, the State needs to grant a waiver for the school to be built on a smaller site (DeKalb received a waiver for the Chamblee High School rebuild).  Three, keeping Austin may require the acquisition of four homes on Holly Bank Circle.  Read HERE from something posted back in June on this topic.

If SPLOST passes and the school system can find 14 acres for $200,000 an acre, look for Austin to be relocated.  This will set the wheels in motion for redistricting, for everyone in the cluster.

What happens if SPLOST is voted down?  I would expect a revised SPLOST plan to be on the ballot for 2012.  In 2012 a SPLOST passes easily since it is a Presidential election year, bringing out more voters across DeKalb.  This year, Dunwoody voters will be out in big numbers to elect a new mayor and council, vote on bonds, Sunday alcohol sales, and the creation of a TAD.  In summary, if Dunwoody turns out in big numbers to oppose SPLOST, it may fail.  But it will pass in 2012.  Would Austin be named specifically in a 2012 SPLOST?  I doubt it.  If SPLOST fails, the school board will examine why it failed (Austin is but a small part of the SPLOST pie, there are many other areas opposed to SPLOST for various reasons) and make changes for the 2012 version.

If a new 900-seat Austin is rebuilt at its current site, would we still have redistricting?  Yes.  Most likely you would see some students currently zoned at DES and even Vanderlyn moved to Austin, but it would not likely affect Chesnut or Kingsley.

What can you do to vote down SPLOST?  The obvious is to vote 'No'. The next step is to encourage friends and neighbors to vote no. 

Does voting for the city's land acquisition bond help keep Austin where it is now? I've been asked that question a few times. I would say ‘maybe’.  If the 'land' bond passes, the 19 acre tract the city has under contract is no longer available to the school system.  By no means do I suggest voters vote 'yes' for the bonds simply for this reason.  The city will not be able to buy every property in Dunwoody that could be home to a school, nor should it attempt to do so.  The school system still owns unused property in Dunwoody and that property becomes trade bait with the city and other interested parties.

Will our property taxes go up if we vote 'no' to SPLOST? Yes, you will see a $57 increase.  That $57 goes to pay for Chamblee's rebuild and for other general fund expenses.  If SPLOST passes in 2012, your taxes would be reduced by the $57.  What does 1% sales tax mean to the average Dunwoody resident?  That answer depends upon how much money you spend in DeKalb County.  How much do you spend a month at Costco?  At Wal-Mart?  Are you buying a new car?  $57 is one percent of $5,700.  Do you spend $5,700 a year on taxable goods in DeKalb County?

I am running for city council.  Why would I even bring up this issue while running a campaign to win a seat on Dunwoody City Council?  Should I not be focused only on city issues?  After all, a councilman has no control over school decisions.  I bring up this issue because school issues are as important as city council.  I will not sit back and avoid sensitive issues.  Our schools are very important to Dunwoody, and I will voice my opinion on important school issues like this SPLOST vote.

If SPLOST does pass, I plan to be very vocal and fight to keep Austin at its current location.  I don’t have a vote on the school board, but I do feel it is important to voice my concerns.  With a large amount of kids living on the north side of Dunwoody, we need to keep a school on the north side of our city.  Building another school anywhere near Womack is not what is needed for Dunwoody. 
If SPLOST fails, I will work to make sure the school most urgently needing replacement is replaced, using a sensible rating system.  We will need seats in Dunwoody soon as our schools are overcrowded now.  There may be a need to keep Austin at its location, build a new Chesnut, and then plan now for another elementary school and another middle school.

Vote NO on the e-SPLOST

·       $33 million from last SPLOST wasted on central office

·       Funding for improvements to county tracks removed and replaced with $10 million addition to a school that serves less than 300 students

·       Millions of dollars wasted on legal fees and poor construction 

·       Proposed SPLOST is pork project, building more schools in areas where student population is in drastic decline, neglecting high growth areas

·       Dunwoody’s new school location not determined, and we are not replacing the worst-condition elementary school in Dunwoody

·       New superintendent needs to show signs of fiscal responsibility by reducing bloated central office staff and putting more dollars into classrooms

·       Most of the people involved inappropriately allocating funds from the last SPLOST are still employed by DeKalb – nothing has changed!

Dunwoody High School
In other school related news, I expect to hear that Dunwoody High School, after re-tests last summer, passed the No Child Left Behind benchmark and will be eligible to be a receiving school next year for students in failing DeKalb high schools. But there is a sliver of hope the State of Georgia will be exempt from all or part of the NCLB rules soon as Georgia filed with the US Dept. of Education for a waiver.  Don't look for the Feds to act soon on this.  I expect the waiver issue to drag into next fall, becoming campaign material for the Presidential candidates.


Dunwoody Mom said...

Very good post Rick.

Rob said...

Rick, COSTCO is in Fulton County. You're already paying 1%+ there when you shop. Unless, of course, you mean the COSTCO down in Town Brookhaven, which is very nice.

Not sure your logical arguments on this are going to hold up, but perhaps they will. Intersting analysis though regardless.

It does seem better to approve the Parks Bonds to take away the alternative site. Of couse, I support the PARKS BONDS for many other reasons. Too bad we can't get any politicians who are running to commit fully to improving our Parks.

As far as Austin, the real problem is the school board and lack of firm commitment to rebuild Austin on existing site. We should have had that from day one. But that's another issue and another election.

Chip said...


We read the same blogs.

Other than nit-picking Rick, you add nothing to the conversation.

For more reasons than you have, I say Vote NO on SPLOST and VOTE NO! on the parks bonds.