Early voting underway this week on BoE race, E-SPLOST renewal, charters

You can’t vote often, but you can vote early.

Starting Monday, Oct. 15, there will be three locations in the county where all voters may cast ballots: The Peachtree City Library and the Tyrone Town Hall will join the Fayette County elections office in downtown Fayetteville in offering early voting.

These polls will be open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and also on Saturday, Oct. 27 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. All early voting will cease at the close of Friday, Nov. 2 in advance of all 36 voting precincts opening on Tuesday, Nov. 6 for election day.

Also in the week leading up to the election, polls will be opened in the large commissioner’s meeting room at the county’s Stonewall administrative complex in downtown Fayetteville.

A heavy turnout is expected, and officials have said that in the last Presidential Election more voters took advantage of early voting than those who showed up on the actual election day for precinct voting.

One upshot of voting early is that your driver’s license or state ID card will be scanned to speed up the registration process. No longer will you have to sit down at a table to fill out your name, address and date of birth on a request for a ballot. The request will be printed out by the elections staff instead.

There is only one contested local race on the ballot as incumbent Fayette County Board of Education member Terri Smith, who switched this past spring from the Republican to the Democrat Party, faces a challenge from Republican Mary Kay Bacallao, who ran unsuccessfully against Smith four years ago. Smith has served three terms as a Republican, beginning in 2000. Although the winner will take the Post 2 seat on the board, all county voters may cast a ballot in this race.

The bigger local question, however, is likely to be whether voters will extend the 1 percent sales tax for education, commonly known as E-SPLOST, for another five years.

E-SPLOST funds have been used to add technology improvements to schools, purchase textbooks and school buses, and also to pay down the school’s bonded debt, which has resulted in a lowering of the school debt service millage rate over the past several years.

Among the technology improvements to schools has been the adoption of a computerized grading system that automatically notifies parents via email when their child has a failing grade in a class or has a zero for an assignment. Also several local schools have been outfitted with restricted Internet access to enhance learning through the “bring your own technology” program, and schools have also been able to adopt remote control devices called “student responders” which allow students to become more active in learning by answering multiple choice questions posed to the entire class.

The school system has also used the E-SPLOST to purchase 36 new school buses, add security video cameras to other buses, officials have said.

E-SPLOST proceeds also have been used to the tune of $12.2 million to pay down bond-financed projects and in turn reduce the millage rate for that indebtedness, officials have said.

Critics of the E-SPLOST program contend that the board has mis-spent money and should not be granted an additional five-year levy, which is anticipated to raise as much as $107 million a year.

Board members have said that the state has cut $15 million in funds from the school system each of the past two years and thus is to blame for much of the schools’ financial status. The system has also seen a reduction in students over the past several years, which translates to even fewer state funds, along with a decrease in property taxes due to property reassessments spiraling downwards across the county.

Unlike the city and county governments in Fayette County, the school board cannot raise its millage rate any higher to overcome the loss of property taxes due to sinking property values. This is because the millage rate is already at the maximum 20-mill rate allowed by law.

Last month, School Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Bearden enacted a school-level spending freeze and a hiring freeze along with other measures in the hopes of saving an additional $5 million in the current fiscal year’s budget.

The school system finances have also deteriorated to the point that school closures are a reality, with as few as three and as many as five schools under consideration. Although this will save as much as $4 million or more, that still leaves about $10 million or more to be trimmed from the upcoming fiscal year’s budget.

Bearden has said that much of those cuts will come from personnel because that represents some 90 percent of the school system’s budget.

The school system saves about $700,000 for each day that the entire school system is closed, Bearden told parents at a redistricting meeting earlier this year. Closing each school is anticipated to save about $800,000 per school, he added.

The school system has lost about 2,000 students in the past four years, Bearden added.

Some E-SPLOST supporters contend that without the help of the sales tax, the school system will have to make draconian cuts in personnel thanks to the deep cuts in state funding. However, E-SPLOST revenue by law cannot be used to pay teachers or for any personnel expenditures.

The system has used the E-SPLOST to pay for items that would have normally been purchased by the general fund such as buses and textbooks, which does free up general fund money to help keep teachers, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and janitors.

Another initiative affecting Georgia schools is on the ballot: a constitutional amendment that would create a charter school commission to create new charter schools in any public school district in Georgia.

This would be a duplication of powers to some degree as Georgia already allows local boards of education and also the state Board of Education to create charter schools in any school district. However, legislators and charter school proponents contend that quality charter school applications have been denied routinely by both local school boards and the state Board of Education.

This amendment reflects a power struggle between the state and local boards of education and the legislature, which saw the Charter Schools Commission struck down as being unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court.

The amendment seeks to change the state constitution to allow charter schools to be authorized by the commission in addition to the local and state school boards.

Opponents have contended that instead of creating new charter schools which serve only a fraction of the state population, the legislature should seek to restore funding to its public schools because they serve the entire state.

Charter schools have become so popular, and in particular because they often target areas served by poor-performing schools, that the applicants far outnumber the amount of space available ... and thus a lottery is conducted to determine who is admitted to a charter school and who has to remain in their districted and often underperforming public school.

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