School referendum only days away

Published 1:00 pm Sunday, March 15, 2015

AMERICUS — Sumter County voters continue in early voting until 5 p.m. today for a referendum on the Sumter County School System. The special election is Tuesday, March 17.

The ballot has only one question on it but includes two items: whether or not to allow the Sumter County School District to float $28.5 million in general obligation bonds for constructing and equipping a new high school; constructing, repairing, renovation and equipping school buildings and support facilities; purchasing safety and security equipment; renovating physical education and athletic facilities; acquisition of administrative and instructional technology; acquiring band equipment, textbooks and buses; AND whether or not to continue the current 1 percent ESPLOST that ends in 2017, for another five years to raise not more than $25 million to fund a portion of the acquisition and construction and interest on the bonds.

In the original resolution adopted by the Sumter County Board of Education in an 8-1 vote in December 2014, the language also contains more: “to provide for the levy and collection of ad valorem taxes to pay the portion of the debt service on the bonds not paid by the proceeds of the sales and use tax: and for other purposes.”

Sumter County Schools Superintendent Donnie Smith was asked about this and he said that is typical and is always included in the language of the resolution. He said that if the bond interest and principal is not paid off by the end of the ESPLOST following the 1 percent tax now in effect, voters will be asked to approve another ESPLOST, possibly two, to keep ad valorem taxes from rising.

Smith said the state will provide $14 million to build a new high school. The school system has $3 million to $4 million in reserves from SPLOST revenues which “will allow us to purchase the land and get rolling. It will allow us to sell the bonds and borrow a few million if needed.”

Smith said now is better than later due to the expected rise in interest rates and building materials. This opinion was echoed by Frank King of Raymond James and Associates, an investment banking firm, who spoke during the Sumter County Board of Education meeting Monday.

The projected cost of the new high school, including land acquisition and construction, is $40 million with between $22 million and $24 million coming from bond revenues.

Smith was asked if the new school can be built with one more ESPLOST if voters approve the referendum on March 17.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The old building has nothing to do with anything except to let the voters decide. This is a 2.5- to three-year project.”

The new high school would be built to hold between 1,300 and 1,350 students which allows for growth of about 100 students, and would combine all students in grade nine-12 in one building, instead of the two current campuses. Staley Middle School on North Lee Street could possibly be used for the alternative school or some other use such as for the Furlow Charter School as it adds grades.

Regardless of what the voters decide on March 17, the Sumter County Schools System will undergo a reconfiguration prior to the 2015-2016 school year.

Sarah Cobb School will house Pre-K and kindergarten; Sumter County Primary School will house first- and second-graders; Sumter County Elementary School will house third- and fourth-graders; Sumter County Middle School will house fifth and sixth grades; Americus-Sumter County High School North Campus with house seventh and eighth grades; Staley Middle School will house ninth-graders; and grades 10-12 will go to Americus-Sumter County High School South Campus. Smith said this would be a temporary situation because after a new high school is built, only one building will be closed (Staley) and grades 9-12 will be in the new facility. He also said the cost of transportation should not increase under the new configuration and only moving costs will be incurred.

Voters on Tuesday will cast their ballots at their usual polling places. Voters are required to show a photo ID.