How do you build while tearing down?

Matthew Strother News editor

October 19, 2013

On the outside, it probably seems insane that the school system has closed down three schools because of budget cuts, but then starts building new ones, but there’s actually a reason behind it.

The Troup County School System is moving forward on plans to build a new Ethel Kight school, part of its plan toward fewer, bigger, more efficient elementary schools in the county. One aspect of the school system’s plan that I know still confuses people is how the system is constantly noting that funds are tight, state funding is dwindling and it’s closing schools, yet is able to fund building new schools.

At the outset, that seems contradictory, and it’s easy to see why. If you can’t afford to make house payments, you likely can’t funding building a new house. However, that’s where one tool the school system and local government has comes into play: the special-purpose, local-option sales tax, or SPLOST.

SPLOST is mentioned a lot in local politics and the pages of this paper, but it can still be a bit of a foreign concept for many. As should be obvious by the name, it’s a sales tax: 1 percent charged on all items sold in Troup County is allocated to the school system. Where it gets confusing is how it can and can’t be used.

Many people may look at the school system’s plans to build and expand schools and say, “Why don’t they use that money to pay teachers, buy supplies and keep the current schools operating?” Short answer is that state law says they can’t.

With few exceptions, SPLOST is legally limited mainly to capital improvement projects, in other words construction projects - construction, renovation or improvement of buildings, roads, facilities, etc.

So, the school system can’t simply add the roughly $800,000 to $1 million per month it receives in SPLOST funds to buffer its general fund. As voters in last SPLOST ballot measure may recall, the local governments and school system also have to define what they will use the funds for.

Similarly, the school system also receives restricted grants and funding from state and federal sources, like Title 1 funding from the federal government, which is allocated to school systems based on their percentage of low-income students. Those funds allow the school system to purchase equipment like interactive media boards for classrooms.

That’s why the school system can build new buildings, refurbish its existing ones or invest in new technology, but still has a money crisis. The school system’s move toward a more consolidated elementary school system make sense from a financial standpoint, when you consider it’s limited in how it can use its funds.

If the school system can’t boost its general funds, it can use the funds it has at its disposal – SPLOST – to make a more efficient model and save money in the long run. Superintendent Cole Pugh made a point at Thursday’s Board of Education to emphasize that the closing of Cannon Street Elementary, West Side Magnet and Unity Elementary schools is saving an estimated $3.3 million in operating costs each year.

Those closures are painful, no doubt. And the ensuing changes to school districts, and closures to come won’t be easy on parents or students at first either. However, if the school system can successfully use the SPLOST funds its has available to serve all its children for less money, it can help make it more stable with the ongoing fiscal instability.

However, the debate still is on whether these larger schools can serve our children as well as the smaller schools they replace.