Panelists blast education sales tax referendum at Mableton forum

·6 min read

Oct. 14—When they head to the polls in the next couple weeks, a group of south Cobb parents and educators might vote to reject the billion-dollar education sales tax known as Ed-SPLOST VI, they said at a virtual forum hosted Tuesday night by the Mableton Improvement Coalition.

During the forum, Greg Teague, the head of Croy Engineering and upcoming Cobb Chamber of Commerce chairman, found himself on the defensive, as the lone panelist who consistently spoke in favor of the referendum.

Ed-SPLOST VI is transparent, bipartisan, eases the tax burden on county homeowners and, if delayed, might fail, starving the Cobb and Marietta school districts of much-needed revenue, Teague said.

Four other panelists felt otherwise: the Cobb school board's Republican majority is not a good steward of taxpayer money; the vote is premature; and the list of projects the tax would fund doesn't go far enough in correcting for past underinvestment in the area, which has historically had the largest portion of and nonwhite residents in the county, they argued.

The election is Nov. 2, but early voting began Monday. If approved, the referendum would take effect January 2024, right after the current education SPLOST ends. Ed-SPLOST VI would run five years, through the end of 2028.

Among the projects on the list are a new elementary school in south Cobb, a rebuild of the main Sprayberry High School building in east Cobb and a second career academy.

Every several years since the late 1990s, county voters have been asked to approve a "special purpose local option sales tax," or SPLOST, funding the Cobb and Marietta school districts. As the name implies, the tax is to be used for special projects, such as new construction. Day-to-day school operations, on the other hand, are funded by property taxes and state funding.

And yet the school districts have come to rely on the SPLOST for funding their day-to-day operations as well, with millions in SPLOST dollars going to the renovation of existing buildings and the replacement of aging technology.

Valerie Testman, one of the participants in Tuesday night's forum, said she had never thought twice about voting for an Ed-SPLOST — until now.

"I'm a no (vote). I am definitely a no," said Testman, whose son attends South Cobb High School. "That's not to say I can't change my mind, because I voted for every SPLOST since 1998. But this year, I cannot, until the board and the superintendent and the cabinet make a concerted effort to come to this community (and) open up ... the last three SPLOST notebooks."

The "notebook" is the list of a SPLOST's projects and projected revenue. Testman said south Cobb is still waiting for completion of some projects listed in past SPLOST notebooks.

Another panelist was Jennifer Susko, an outspoken critic of the district's handling of racial issues who resigned from her job as a Mableton Elementary School counselor over the summer in protest of the school board's ban on the teaching of critical race theory. Susko pointed to the school board when explaining why she'd vote "no" on the education tax.

The school board's Republican majority has voted in recent years to remove a period at the end of each meeting when members could speak freely on a topic of their choosing and to raise, from three to four, the number of members whose support is required to put an item on a meeting's agenda. The board's three Democrats, each representing a different part of south Cobb, have said those changes "silenced" them and the people they represent.

"They do what they want and they do not answer to this community, meaning south Cobb County," Susko said of the board's Republican majority. "Nobody's saying SPLOST is bad, I've always voted for it, SPLOST is great, but the community needs to be heard and not stonewalled."

Mableton's Millicent Phinizy, a former psychologist in the district whose son attends Clay-Harmony Leland Elementary, brought this up when explaining why she had yet to decide how she'd vote.

"This may be the last tool that I have to try to hold the board and the superintendent accountable for the monies that they are bringing in," she said.

Ronda Shepard, a Mableton resident and former Mableton Improvement Coalition board member, said some of the district's purchases don't inspire confidence either.

A disinfectant UV light system purchased last December was returned early this year after it malfunctioned, and a security system purchased in 2017, AlertPoint, sent out a false alarm this year after it was breached in a cyberattack.

At one point toward the end of the forum, moderator Joel Cope, president of the Mableton Improvement Coalition, said a listener had pointed out that south Cobb "stands to gain more by passing the E-SPLOST than other regions of the county."

"South Cobb has been neglected more than any other part of the county, so we deserve that and more," Shepard said. "Even if we get everything that's in that SPLOST, we're still behind the 8 ball."

Teague found himself in a polite back-and-forth with other panelists, singing the tax's virtues after the issues they had raised.

Voters know where every dollar in the SPLOST will go, he said. It garnered rare bipartisan support when the school board approved the project list 6-1 in July, with the only opposition vote being Republican David Banks. It eases the tax burden on county homeowners, with an estimated 30% of the revenue it generates coming from people who live outside Cobb County. It is necessary, he said, and putting it off for 2022, as some suggested, could doom it next year, when it will share the ballot with a planned sales tax referendum for transit.

That said, he understood concerns about the strife on the board, something most panelists mentioned Tuesday.

"I share your frustration with some of the things that are happening at the school board level," he said. "You can go to the MDJ and get almost a daily accounting of some controversy, some disagreement that is going on, and that's not healthy for the community."

The MIC is a volunteer-run civic organization whose members frequently weigh in on issues affecting the area, such as rezoning cases. Education has become a priority in recent years, Cope said, with Vice President Nate Smith serving as "point person" on the issue.

Cope said he, Smith and other MIC members identified people who could speak to the topic at hand and invited them to participate.

"It was important to us that we identified folks who have some connections in the community, but also who were kind of just lay people ... people who are very relatable and seem like your next door neighbor," he said.

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