As early voting for the July 31 primary election in Whitfield County begins today, members of Dalton and Whitfield County’s Citizens for a Smart ESPLOST committee are working to get the word out on what they consider a vital vote for the community.
Voters will decide whether to approve the area’s fourth ESPLOST (education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax), a 1 percent sales tax that would be levied for five years, potentially bringing in up to $105 million in revenue. Some $68.65 million of that would go to Whitfield County Schools while the rest, about $36.35 million, would be designated for Dalton Public Schools.
Mike Maret, a local businessman and chairman of the committee, said it consists of several individuals involved through various volunteer activities in either the city or county school systems.
Sometimes, people from the schools are a part of the meetings, he said. By law, school officials can provide factual information about why they’ve proposed an ESPLOST, but they aren’t allowed to publicly campaign for one.
Committee members can, however, and they’re doing that with private donations, a Facebook page called “Help Dalton Whitfield Kids — Vote Yes for ESPLOST,” a website at helpdaltonwhitfieldkids.org, newspaper and radio advertisements and a letter to the editor that appeared in The Daily Citizen last week, and promotional materials, some of which feature the smiling face of a blonde-haired girl lying in the grass with a red, white and blue caption that reads “VOTE FOR ME” next to her face.
“No one really wants another tax, but the reality is this community appears to be very serious about economic development,” said Bob Bethel, a committee member who is also involved with the Dalton Education Foundation, which raises money for the city school system. “One component shown by several studies is that education is a big part of that.”
The ballot as written allows enough leeway for officials to later decide to use the money for just about anything the tax proceeds can legally be used for, from land purchases to school buses, band instruments and textbooks. (By law, ESPLOST proceeds must be designated for one-time capital expenses and can’t fund salaries, utility bills or other kinds of operating needs.)
Officials from both school systems, however, have publicized lists of projects they plan to put ESPLOST funds toward. In Whitfield County Schools, that includes about $36 million in debt from previous projects, as well as a list of “critical needs” for improvements at both Northwest and Southeast high schools, North Whitfield and Valley Point middle schools, 11 elementary schools and two central office facilities.
In the city school system, the main projects identified are for renovating a facility for expanding Morris Innovative High School and for adding on to overcrowded Dalton Middle School. Like the county school system, Dalton officials have also identified several smaller projects, from replacing roofs to updating carpet, at several other schools but they’ve said the Morris and Dalton Middle projects are their highest priorities.
So how exactly do newer buildings, faster computers and debt repayment help kids learn? There’s no shortage of scholarly research on the impact of the learning environment on students’ education, but Bethel said the correlation he sees is an indirect one. Since there’s little room in either school system’s general operating budget to fund those things each year, an ESPLOST takes the pressure off that budget so more important things — like teachers’ jobs — can continue being funded, he said.
“To really do the special things that our students and our citizens want, you’ve got to have that money,” added Brian Cooksey, a Shaw Industries executive and member of the board of directors for the Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy.
Yet not everyone believes an ESPLOST is needed.
Frank Barnes, a Whitfield County resident who lives just outside of Dalton, said he opposes the proposed tax because he doesn’t believe enough has been done to cut unnecessary spending.
“I believe they are still very, very heavy in administrative payroll in the county system,” he said.
Barnes said he would cut most assistant principal positions as well as the public relations/community relations position. He said he’d also begin cutting funding for athletics and “social” activities that aren’t strictly academic.
“I don’t think that our educational system knows the difference between a need and a want,” he said.
County school officials in particular have said an ESPLOST is needed, especially to pay off the roughly $36 million in debt. Dalton Board of Education members have said they can finance their projects with or without an ESPLOST if a proposed loan that must be approved by Dalton’s Building Authority goes through, but they’d prefer to pay it off through the sales tax rather than the general operating budget.
(Others are involved but not always on a regular basis.)
Two most recent votes
• 2006 — By a 3-1 margin, voters approve the third ESPLOST to collect up to $115 million for new schools. It brings in about $100 million, ending in December 2011.
• 2001 — Voters approve continuing the five-year tax that started in 1997 to collect up to $77.6 million on the second round. Some $53.6 million went to Whitfield County Schools while $24 million was allocated for Dalton Public Schools.