Please see updates to this story as of 11 a.m. Friday. The updates start and end with blue editor’s notes.
On radio: Thursday, Oct. 12: Education tax pros and cons on Hometown Headlines Radio Edition on WRGA: Dr. John Jackson, superintendent of Floyd County Schools, and Lou Byars, superintendent of Rome City Schools, will join us from 7:40 until 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 12, on the Hometown Headlines Radio Edition on WRGA 98.7 FM and online at wrga.streamon.fm. Only the superintendents will join us in studio and on-air.
By Natalie Simms
An $80 million, five-year extension of the Education Special Local Option Sales Tax is on the ballot for all city and county voters on Nov. 7 and, as proposed, would fund at least five major renovations or new building projects for Rome City and Floyd County Schools — and that’s about all. What’s at issue: How much — if any — would be left for “second tier” projects such as elementary gym air conditioning, student Chromebooks and such.
Using the numbers provided by both school systems for the major projects alone, the city would wipe out its $31.2 million share of an extended education tax just with the three big projects. County estimates show around $4 million would be left after its two big projects.
And adding to the troubling mathematics: The school systems believe they’d together collect $80 million from the penny sales tax starting a day after the current one expires on March 31, 2019. The special purpose tax extension proposed by county and municipal governments also is for one-cent on the dollar, lasts the exact same five years and is estimated to bring in $63.8 million — $16.2 million less than the schools’ projection.
Both tax extensions hinge on voter approval during advance voting starting Oct. 16 and election day, Nov. 7. Both are complex tax packages and each is an all-or-nothing package. Voters must say yes or no to the entire schools and government packages (separate votes on each).
THE EDUCATION TAX
The education proposal is perhaps more emotional than the other general purpose “special tax” extension also on the ballot this fall (click here for background information on it).
Those supporting the education tax say they’ve divided projects into two tiers with those in the top level getting priority funding (new or remodeled county schools, Rome High’s athletic enhancements, independent career academy and Main/North Heights projects). Based on the city’s cost estimates (see below), the entire $31.2 million share of the revenue would be exhausted by the tier one projects ($31 million to $36 million).
Many of the more promoted projects — air conditioning for elementary gyms at city schools, expanded technology (Chromebooks included) for students of both systems — are in the second tier of funding. Whatever would be left after the first tier projects were funded and completed would be designated for the AC, technology and other wish-list items included below.
In the city’s case, there would be no leftovers even using the school system’s most conservative cost estimates. In the county’s case, again using the estimates provided below, $45 million of its $48.8 million share would be exhausted by the Armuchee and Pepperell projects alone.
Update begins: School officials this morning told us that there are additional sources of revenue that would be available to augment the special tax dollars.
We asked for an updated statement and received this comment from Dr. John Jackson, superintendent of Floyd County Schools: “Both Floyd County Schools’ Tier I projects (i.e., modernization of Armuchee High School and a new Pepperell Middle School) anticipate the inclusion of state capital outlay funds. The ESPLOST V collection projections are set conservatively so as not to over-promise or underperform. The Tier II projects are clearly understood to be completed if funds are available. Parents and school district staff know that already. We will continue to explore every possible funding source for those Tier II projects. I believe the story’s title “…Do The Math Before Voting” insinuates either incompetence on our part or outright deception, neither of which is true. The ESPLOST V projects (if approved by voters) will be funded from multiple sources.”
From Louis Byars, superintendent of Rome City Schools: “Rome City Schools is committed to building a new Main Elementary School, a Sixth Grade Academy, and an addition to Rome High School that will house a College and Career Academy along with an extracurricular area that will be utilized for athletics, the arts, academics, and JROTC. When we provide estimated costs for these projects, we give the total estimated cost for each project so as not to mislead the public. Even though ESPLOST funds will fund a large portion of these projects, it will not be the only source of funds. Additional funds will come from state capital outlay funds as well as other sources. These additional funds should allow us to complete all three major projects and still have funds remaining to complete many of the minor projects to include air conditioning at the elementary school gyms, technology purchases, and new buses. I would also like to point out that the estimated cost per square foot for the high school addition was an average. The extracurricular building would be much less per square foot that the two story building. Therefore, the assumption made in the article to use the average estimated cost per square foot would be a mistake in trying to determine the cost of what you considered to be ‘athletic’.” End update
SELLING THE PACKAGE
Some school board members, along with both school superintendents (Dr. John Jackson and Louis Byars) have been giving ESPLOST presentations whenever and wherever they have the opportunity including at recent meetings of the Exchange Club of Rome and Rome Rotary Club. Both systems have developed an informative brochure they are distributing to staff and parents in all of the schools. In addition, the group Rome-Floyd Citizens For Better Schools has created a website and brochures to support the effort that are being distributed throughout the community.
“The ESPLOST referendum is critical, not only to the enhancement of our current programs and facilities, but is also a huge piece of the financial puzzle for providing safe, optimal learning environments for our students,” says Dr. John Jackson, superintendent of Floyd County Schools. “Without ESPLOST funds to supplement state funds and property tax revenues, we will be hard-pressed to continue to provide our students with state-of-the-art classrooms and other resources they deserve. And considering that about 40 percent of current ESPLOST proceeds are contributed by visitors from outside Floyd County, it’s a pretty good deal for our taxpayers.”
Rome Superintendent Louis Byars agrees. “ESPLOST is important for Rome City Schools because it benefits students in numerous ways that could not have been funded otherwise. It helps fund school facility improvements, modernization, and other capital projects that are needed without having to increase property taxes. ESPLOST revenues have helped pay for the construction of Elm Street Elementary and Anna K. Davie Elementary. We have added numerous classrooms and made renovations to each of our facilities. Most of our technology improvements have been funded through ESPLOST funds to include Smartboards in every classroom and Chromebooks for all students from grades 2-12.”
Supporters also estimate county visitors pay between 35 to 40 percent of a special tax.
POTENTIAL RED FLAGS
We could not identify any organized group in opposition to the schools proposal but there has been concern voiced within the community.
Some stems from the ongoing fraud investigation involving Floyd County Schools and the theft of more than $4 million, allegedly by former employees and others. “Floyd County Schools has instituted new policies and procedures to ensure that all funds collected for school construction projects will be used for the benefit of our students. State law requires that ESPLOST funds be used on the projects that are listed on the ESPLOST ballot. The school system has been audited for ESPLOST funds and was given a positive, unqualified opinion,” says Lenora McEntire, Public Relations manager with the county school system.
Earlier this week, a Nov. 18 auction was announced where a massive amount of goods purchased by the theft ring’s alleged mastermind, former schools’ maintenance chief Derry Richardson, will be sold with those funds returning to the county school system. Click auction
Others have voiced concerns over certain projects including a second College and Career Academy, this one at Rome High School. There already is a career academy operated by the county school system across from the Rome campus of Georgia Northwestern Technical College. Some business leaders have expressed concerns that Rome-Floyd County can’t support two separate academies. City and county school officials met on several occasions to discuss an expanded joint academy but ultimately Rome wants its own “campus” built on property adjoining the high school.
There also is considerable talk about the indoor athletics/multipurpose field and overall expansion of athletics facilities at RHS. According to the most recent plans provided Hometown Headlines (dated June 2017), over half of the first floor would be designated for athletics, including the indoor athletics/multipurpose practice field, varsity and junior varsity locker rooms, an equipment room, storage room, training room and weightlifting. The second floor plans include a large office suite for Physical Education teachers and coaches that includes nine offices and conference area.
On Monday, Hometown Headlines filed an Open Records Request, seeking details plans and costs associated with this project. In his response to the request Thursday evening, Byars wrote, “We have never received an actual estimate on cost. The $14 million-$16 million estimate has been based on an estimated square footage and estimated cost per square foot. The attached floor plans show a building of approximately 123,000 to 124,000 square feet. At $120 to $130 average cost per square foot, the total cost has a range of $14.76 million to $16.12 million. When we get to the final plans, we will firm up these numbers.”
Also this week, Byars said, “We are still finalizing what career programs and pathways will be in the building. And some areas could be considered both educational and athletic areas such as the weight room because PE teachers do teach classes in there during the school day, so I consider that area for educational purposes. It’s really hard to put a cost on what is educational and what is athletics but I would guess that about 60 percent of the building would be educational and 40 percent of the building is athletics. This will bring our facilities up to where they need to be and give us room to grow.”
Using Byars space and cost estimates, that means at least $6 million of the RHS addition would be for athletics, or roughly 20 percent of the city’s proposed share of the education tax revenue.
WHAT’S ON THE BALLOT
Here is a look at the ESPLOST proposed projects:
Floyd County Schools
Armuchee High School (Tier I)
Cost estimate: $25 million
This project includes a full modernization of academic and sports facilities at Armuchee High that include:
- A newly designed school entrance, along with new office and administration area.
- A new exterior design that includes a new raised roof in the hallways to allow for more natural lighting throughout the school
- A new auditorium featuring new floor, seating, lighting, new sound system, new sound and lighting control booth and new décor.
- A new media center that would be relocated to the current administrative area featuring latest media technology.
- A revitalized stadium to include enhancement to home stands, new visitor stands, new sod for field, new eight-lane latex competition track, new modern concession stands and new modern field house for athletes.
- A new gymnasium with stadium seating for 1,200 and sight lines to enhance fan experience.
- The lunchroom will be modernized with new kitchen and dining area.
Pepperell Middle School (Tier I)
Cost estimate: $20 million
This project includes a new Pepperell Middle School to replace the current school that was built in early 1970s. The current school located on Hughes Dairy Road has a number of maintenance issues, including a roof that leaks with every rain shower. Pepperell Middle is the second largest school by enrollment. The proposal is for a new modern, multistory school with technology for the 21st Century. Floyd Schools owns land near the current school and next to Pepperell High School, either of which could be used for the new school.
Tier II projects
No cost estimate projected.
- New roof for Model Elementary School
- Systemwide technology improvements and equipment (Chromebooks)
- New lunchroom for Garden Lakes Elementary
- New access road for the College and Career Academy
- Acquire school buses and school-related vehicles and transportation facilities.
Rome City Schools
Main Elementary (Tier I)
Cost estimate: $10-11 million
This project would demolish the existing Main Elementary would rebuild a new building that would link the current gym and cafeteria to create a unified building. The new facility would consolidate students from the two smallest schools in the RCS system, Main Elementary and North Heights Elementary. The new building would have approximately 79,505 square feet and accommodate more than 600 students.
Sixth Grade STEAM Academy (Tier I)
Cost estimate: $7-9 million
This project would take the existing North Heights Elementary School at 26 Atteiram Drive and renovate the facility to serve as the Sixth Grade Academy. This project would begin after the students and staff move into the new Main Elementary. This new academy would be a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) focused facility that offers children a curriculum focused on career exploration. It would create additional space at every elementary school in the Rome system with all sixth graders now going to different facility, giving the students a transitional year before entering Rome Middle School.
Rome High: College and Career Academy and athletics center (Tier I)
Cost estimate: $14 million to $16 million
The career academy would include new career pathways for culinary arts, medical-related fields, government services, multimedia, automotive industry and other skilled trades. A school-based health clinic would be set up in the facility to offer services to children and parents to promote healthy habits.
As shown, at least a third of the addition’s total space would be for a “multipurpose field house.” Though designated for athletics, Byars says it could be used for assembly purposes, by the band for rainy day practice, for Drama/Chorus and other uses. Of the schematics shared with Hometown (RHS 1 and RHS2), it is the only area without specifically designated use.
The majority of the second floor would be classrooms and labs for the career academy, plus an ROTC Cadet Center with combination classroom/shooting range and a large meeting room for faculty meeting or community meetings.
Hometown’s Open Records request netted this additional breakdown Thursday night. Note: s.f. refers to square feet.
Summary of Space Needs for Proposed College & Career Academy Building:
Engineering Technology, Robotics & Mechatronics (minimum requirement 2,990 s.f.; shown 5,343 s.f.)
New Industry (Incubator Lab) (minimum requirement 2,990 s.f.; shown 3,382 s.f.)
Automotive Lab (minimum required 2,990 s.f.; shown 3,360 s.f.)
Graphics Communications/Arts Lab (minimum requirement 2,990 s.f.; shown 3,210 s.f.)
Weightlifting w/ Office & Storage (6,610 s.f.)
Lockers with Restrooms & Showers
Training Room with Office & Toilet
Extracurricular Building (28,200 s.f.) with Storage (1,000 s.f.)
Administration Suite with Offices (2), Secretary/receptionist, Workroom & Toilet
School Store (1,112 s.f.)
Culinary Arts Lab (minimum requirement 2,430 s.f.; shown 3,225 s.f.)
Open Lab (minimum requirement 1,345 s.f.; shown 1,768 s.f.)
Potential Medical Pathways Lab (1,985 s.f.)
Potential Medical Pathway Lab (1,985 s.f.)
Healthcare Science / Patient Care (minimum requirement 2,430 s.f.; shown 2,437 s.f.)
Law Enforcement / Forensic Science (2,430 s.f.)
Public Safety (minimum requirement 1,310 s.f.; shown 1,768 s.f.)
Firefighting (minimum requirement 1,310 s.f.; shown 1,768 s.f.)
Audio Technology Film / Broadcast Video (minimum requirement 2,430 s.f.; shown 3,790 s.f.)
ROTC (minimum requirement 4,100 s.f.; shown 6,724 s.f.)
Meeting Room (4,100 s.f.)
Teacher’s Workroom with Teacher’s Toilets (2)
Utilities/Service spaces on both floors:
Restrooms (Men & Women)
Elevator with Machine Room
Main Electrical and Electrical
Data Server and Data Room
Tier II projects
No cost estimate projected.
- Air conditioning at elementary gyms
- Provide Chromebook for every student
- Provide resources necessary to support all technological devices
- Purchase additional security cameras to ensure safety in all schools
- Purchase additional buses to meet and improve transportation needs