Two schools will be combined and another school will be upgraded and expanded if Columbus voters approve the Muscogee County School District’s proposed renewal of its 1% sales tax for capital projects.
The merger of Forrest Road and Wesley Heights elementary schools and the expansion and upgrade of Double Churches Elementary School are two of the 26 proposed projects totaling an estimated $290 million the MCSD administration presented to the board during a called meeting Monday night.
The Ledger-Enquirer reported in November that the MCSD administration was targeting the May 21 general primary and nonpartisan offices election as the date for the next referendum to continue the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Monday night, the board unanimously approved that election date and the list of proposed projects to be on the public referendum.
The ESPLOST referendum will join the following local offices on the nonpartisan ballot:
Columbus Council seats for Districts 2, 4, 6 and 8
at-large, MCSD board seats for Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7
State court judge.
Local partisan offices on the primary ballot that election day will be for sheriff, superior court clerk, tax commissioner, state court solicitor, probate judge and coroner.
Georgia law allows ESPLOSTs to last five years or until the total amount approved on the referendum is collected. The revenue may pay for capital projects and debt retirement, but its may not be used for operating expenses.
Proposed MCSD ESPLOST projects
Here are the proposed projects, totaling an estimated $290 million:
$153.5 million for support to learn
Upgrade security cameras (uncompleted from ESPLOST approved in 2020)
Access control infrastructure
Weapons detection equipment
Upgrades at Chattahoochee Valley Libraries
Upgrades at Columbus Museum
Replace outdated intercom systems
Replace outdated fire alarm
Replace outdated burglar alarms
Replace playgrounds on 10-year cycle
Replace HVAC equipment
Replace outdated buses and other vehicles
Upgrade school parking lots (uncompleted from ESPLOST approved in 2020)
Furniture, education equipment and athletics equipment
Upgrade athletics facilities for Columbus High School at Lakebottom in collaboration with Columbus Consolidated Government
Upgrade athletics fields at Fort Middle School (uncompleted from ESPLOST approved in 2020).
$96 million for room to learn
Upgrade elementary school gyms
Upgrade Richards Middle School gym
Upgrade Rothschild Leadership Academy gym
Enclose campuses with multiple buildings and exposed breezeways
Upgrade or replace schools with the most urgent facility needs.
$40.5 million for ways to learn
Career readiness labs
New computers for students and staff
Replace outdated printers and copiers
Increase and update technology infrastructure.
Why merge Forrest Road and Wesley Heights and expand Double Churches?
Out of MCSD’s more than 50 schools, Double Churches, Forrest Road and Wesley Heights are among the oldest and least functional, according to the administration’s presentation.
MCSD operations chief Travis Anderson told the board that the administration would consult with an architecture firm to determine on which campus the new school merging Forrest Road and Wesley Heights would be built.
The two schools are approximately one mile apart and both have enrollments that are under capacity (Forrest Road 300, Wesley Heights 390). Forrest Road is 70 years old, and its HVAC system is 25 years old. Wesley Heights is 61 years old, and its HVAC system is 24 years old.
Double Churches is 73 years old, and its HVAC system is more than 25 years old. It has a capacity for 625 students, but growth projections in that part of Columbus show the need for the school to have room for more than 700 students.
Anderson said the proposed projects are based on input the administration received from school employees and residents at three community forums.
MCSD also will conduct eight community forums to present the proposed projects to residents and answer their questions before the May 21 election. Here is that schedule:
Feb. 22, 6 p.m., Wesley Heights Elementary School
March 12, 6 p.m., Forrest Road Elementary School
March 27, noon, Muscogee County Public Education Center
March 28, 6 p.m., Aaron Cohn Middle School
April 18, 6 p.m., Fort Middle School
April 30, 6 p.m., Double Churches Elementary School
May 7, 6 p.m., Rothschild Leadership Academy
May 8, 6 p.m., Richards Middle School.
MCSD ESPLOST history
This will be the sixth time in 27 years that MCSD has asked Columbus voters to approve or renew the ESPLOST. The school district won all five previous attempts:
1997: The first ESPLOST in Columbus, approved by 79% of the voters, funded projects such as a new high school (Northside), new air conditioners and renovations for school buildings. The tax was supposed to collect $188 million, but it produced $140 million during the five-year period. As a result, the school board decided to delay building two new schools: the elementary school that became North Columbus and the middle school that became Veterans Memorial, both funded by the next ESPLOST.
2003: In the wake of the unfulfilled 1997 promises, the 2003 ESPLOST referendum barely passed (50.6% of the votes were yes). The margin was only 280 votes. But this time, the tax reached its revenue goal ($148 million). Combined with other funding, MCSD had $180,437,486 to spend on capital projects, such as a new school (Eagle Ridge Academy), a new Rigdon Road Elementary School and a new Mildred L. Terry Public Library. Money also was set aside for a new MCSD headquarters. That project became controversial when it expanded from the original $12.6 million to about $30 million.
2009: This ESPLOST referendum was approved by 57% of the city’s voters to fund a $223,155,784 list of projects, including a new Carver High School, a new middle school (Aaron Cohn) and a new elementary school (Dorothy Height). But the sluggish economy from the Great Recession produced a shortfall of approximately $40 million, prompting the board to reduce and defer some projects.
2015: This ESPLOST referendum resulted in 54% of the city’s voters approving the proposal. The 24 projects amounting to an estimated $192,185,000 included the new Spencer High School, which opened in 2018, the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts, which opened in 2017 with funding from the 2003, 2009 and 2015 ESPLOSTs, district-wide technology upgrades, district-wide facility needs and a sports complex for district-wide use.
2020: This ESPLOST referendum was approved by 69% of Columbus voters. The 22 projects totaling an estimated $189 million include consolidation of two elementary schools (Dawson and St. Marys Road) into a new building (Mary A. Buckner Academy), construction of the postponed sports complex (Odis Spencer Stadium), replacement of the South Columbus Public Library, upgrade of the Columbus Museum, district-wide technology, infrastructure, safety and security improvements, and building additions, renovations and modifications.
In November, Anderson told the board that rapid inflation, regulatory changes and significant delays in material delivery due to clogs in the supply chain combined to hinder the school district’s ability to complete all projects funded by the current ESPLOST.
MCSD is using federal money and reallocating local funds from the general facilities line item to plug the gaps where it can, Anderson said, but some projects remain unfinished, such as district-wide security cameras and parking lot upgrades.
The initial scope of the security cameras project comprised installing new security cameras at all MCSD facilities, totaling an estimated $5.2 million. But the lowest bid increased that estimate by 125% to $11.7 million, Anderson said.
So MCSD removed elementary schools and Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts from that project’s scope to stay within budget. Those schools still have security cameras, but they won’t be upgraded along with the high schools and middle schools with money from the current ESPLOST, Anderson said.
The initial scope of the parking lots project was designed to produce paved parking at schools that have gravel, dirt or grass lots. But changes to state regulations for storm water and impermeable surfaces increased the project’s estimated cost by 50%, from $1.6 million to $2.4 million, Anderson said.
So the following schools won’t have their parking lots upgraded with money from the current ESPLOST, Anderson said: Brewer, Clubview, Davis, Dimon, Double Churches Elementary, Gentian, Georgetown, Hannan, Johnson, Key, Mathews, Reese Road and Richards. Instead, they would be upgraded with money from the renewed ESPLOST if voters approve the referendum.
Because MCSD pulled money from the general facilities line item to fill the shortfall in those ESPLOST projects, the district has unaddressed maintenance needs, Anderson said. He mentioned roofs and HVAC systems beyond life expectancy and removal of carpeting in elementary school classrooms to improve air quality and cleaning ability. Renewing the ESPLOST would generate revenue to pay for those projects.