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Can one penny make a difference? Here’s how a one cent sales tax helps local schools
Superintendent talks ESPLOST, upcoming referendum
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Some pennies are found lying on the ground in parking lots.

Some stay buried at the bottom of a purse in the closet.

Some are pressed with an embossed design of a zoo animal.

But what if those pennies could purchase a new school bus, fund a state-of-the-art culinary arts lab and put iPads in the hands of 3,600 students?

That’s exactly what Dawson County residents voted for in March 2016, when the community voted in favor of ESPLOST V.

The Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) is a 1 percent sales tax that is utilized by Dawson County Schools to fund capital projects including constructing new facilities, renovating current ones and replacing the fleet of buses.

When county residents voted in favor of the tax, they voted for the sales tax on items purchased in Dawson County to be collected either for a 60 month collection period or until a certain amount of money has been collected – in Dawson County’s case, $36.5 million.

Now in month 36 of the 60 month collection period, Dawson County Schools have collected $23,574,298 since 2016, putting the system approximately four months ahead of collections. This means a vote for ESPLOST VI could be coming up on the November 2019 ballot.

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“There’s a lot of unknowns when you ask for people to support an ESPLOST… so when we had that ESPLOST approved that March, we made some projections on what the economy would bring in per year,” said Superintendent Damon Gibbs. “We were a little wrong because when we asked for that vote we didn’t know that Publix and Kroger were coming, so the revenue has gone up and we’re four or five months ahead of collections to date.”

Gibbs said if the current trend of collections continues, the school system could potentially hit that maximum $36.5 million six or seven months early. If that is the case, a vote to extend ESPLOST would be on the ballot in November 2019 rather than March 2020.

“We were supposed to collect through 2020, but we’re going to collect through probably early 2020 so we would ask for an extension in November of 2019 to prevent a lapse in collection,” Gibbs said. “If we waited until March and we hit the number nine months early…businesses would have to stop collecting that money and then restart so we’re trying to make it an extension of the ESPLOST.

“It doesn’t make sense in our minds to have one end and then start it up a few months later. A lot of times people say ‘why are you asking for it before the end of 2020’ and that’s why.”

In order for ESPLOST to be added to the ballot, the superintendent may ask the board of education to consider calling for an ESPLOST referendum. It must be voted upon and approved by the board.

To make that happen, Gibbs and the district office will be going school to school, talking with governance teams and evaluating what the needs of the district look like for the next five years to put together a project list for ESPLOST VI.

The project list will provide the board with a plan as to how Gibbs envisions the new ESPLOST funds being spent.

“As we look at determining the need for ESPLOST VI, I think it’s important that we do maybe even a better job than we’ve done in the past at really showing our community how we’ve spent ESPLOST dollars,” Gibbs said. “My hope is that our community would be proud of how we’re spending these resources.”

Some of the capital projects that have been funded through the current ESPLOST include the Dawson County High School’s Performing Arts Center, JROTC facility and the College and Career Academy currently under construction.

But Gibbs said there are many other ways that ESPLOST funds are used behind the scenes. 

“Technology infrastructure is one of those,” Gibbs said. “We have a lot of devices. We have a lot of pieces that operate behind the scenes, that without those, we couldn’t operate. Our Wi-Fi is a good example. Every single classroom in our district has a Wi-Fi hotspot. Most people don’t realize that, but the infrastructure piece of technology is extremely expensive… and it gets outdated and needs to be upgraded.”

Wireless networks, iPads, faculty laptops, smartboards, computer labs and Apple TVs across all campuses in Dawson County have been purchased and updated with ESPLOST funds.

“Anything related to technology, if it’s equipment we can purchase it using ESPLOST funds and we have spent somewhere in the range of $3 million per year on technology,” Gibbs said.

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Over 800 iPads were issued to students and teachers and staff at Dawson County High School at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. - photo by Jessica Taylor

New buses to maintain the 45 bus fleet at Dawson County’s disposal are also purchased through ESPLOST.

The board spends approximately $500,000 on three new buses per year. The goal is to replace older vehicles so that every 15 years the entire fleet will have been replaced.

Even land for future schools is purchased through ESPLOST. In 2017, Dawson County Schools purchased a 40-acre tract of land off Hwy. 183 as the site of the county’s next elementary school.

Though the school system is nowhere near capacity – with 3,600 students currently and space for up to 5,500 students – Gibbs said there is no better time to buy land to prepare for future growth than now.

“It doesn’t take much driving around to see that we’re growing residentially, we’re having kids move into the system. We know that over time we’re going to have to build schools,” Gibbs said. “There’s no better time to purchase land for the future than now. It’s the most reasonable price that it will be more than likely, and we’re not out buying land to just to buy land. We’re buying land in strategic locations that we feel like schools will need to be built so we’re very careful with that.”

Safety upgrades, new HVAC systems, electrical upgrades, new roofs and the installation of energy and cost efficient LED lighting across the campuses are also funded by ESPLOST.

“It’s much more energy efficient,” Gibbs said. “We’re not only saving dollars, we’re being smarter and more responsible with the things we’ve been given so I feel good about that.”

Reducing the costs of energy means lower electricity bills for the school system. Money saved from the switch to more efficient LED lighting remains in the school system’s general fund, where it can be used to offset some expenses that can’t be funded through ESPLOST.

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Construction of the roof of the College and Career Academy began in January 2019. The new facility cost $7 million and funded through ESPLOST. It will feature LED lighting throughout the entire building to help reduce energy costs. - photo by Jessica Taylor

In 1996 when ESPLOST was passed by the Georgia legislature, there were strict requirements as to what it can fund. The salaries and benefits of school employees, which make up 85 percent of Dawson County Schools’ budget, are something ESPLOST cannot fund.

A majority of educators’ salaries and benefits are state funded; the rest comes from local funds collected through property and ad valorum taxes. Local revenue helps pay for personnel and maintenance and operation components that ESPLOST legally cannot fund such as bus fuel and electricity bills.

“What really upsets me personally is when I hear somebody say ‘you know our property taxes would be lower if they stop building these buildings or if they stop buying iPads,’” Gibbs said.  “There is no impact on property taxes, and I think that’s something I’m proud to be able to stand up and say all these great things we’re doing for our kids have neutral impact on our property taxes.”

ESPLOST also currently does not fund safety personnel, but some discussion is rumbling now about allowing for some flexibility with ESPLOST so that safety personnel can be funded through the sales tax.

Dawson County Schools funds 50 percent of the salaries of the seven school resource officers. The county funds the other 50 percent. The school system also pays the salary for the Safe Schools Coordinator, a position created in the spring 2018.

Because safety officers are non-instructional personnel that receive no state funding, they could potentially be funded with ESPLOST, should state legislators pass an amendment allowing greater flexibility of spending.

Using ESPLOST to pay those salaries would relieve a burden to local taxpayers, Gibbs said.

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A new buzz-in system was installed at all Dawson County schools over the summer 2018. It is one of the safety upgrades purchased from ESPLOST funds allocated by the board of education in April 2018. - photo by Jessica Taylor

 “We have advocated in the past for and will continue to advocate for some flexibility with ESPLOST and being able to use that for some of our maintenance and operations,” Gibbs said. “Some years we may not have that flexibility, like this year we’re building the college and career academy we wouldn’t have those additional funds, but there are years where we don’t have as many renovation projects going on and we would like some flexibility to allocate a percentage of our funds to maintenance and operations.”

As far as whose pennies are going into the ESPLOST fund, the overwhelming majority has come from those who live outside of Dawson County that spend their dollars here.

“I think it’s one of the best things that we ever decided. It’s one of the most fair taxes in the world,” Gibbs said. “It’s based solely on consumption and with all the people that visit Dawson County and spend their dollars in Dawson County I think that…80 to 85 percent of those dollars are spent from people that don’t live here so people from outside Dawson County are helping fund our projects. I think that’s a really cool thing.”

Projections show that Dawson County Schools is in position to collect $8 million in ESPLOST V funds in 2019. If the trend continues, once $36.5 million is collected, a referendum for ESPLOST VI will be on the ballot this fall. It’s not a definite at this time, but it is a goal Gibbs said.

“I think even the people that are here, after you’re here for a little while, you really don’t know how much better we have it than some of our districts across our state,” Gibbs said. “We’re very fortunate. We really are. What we want to do is make sure that the beneficiaries of our good fortune are our children.”

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Bus riders at Robinson Elementary School get ready to walk into school on the first day of the new school year August 2, 2018. A new roof for RES was completed over the summer and funded by ESPLOST.