If you live in the Columbus area, you know that the most popular topic of civic conversation is the proposed renewal of the SPLOST used to fund capital projects in the Muscogee County School District. The atmosphere surrounding this debate has taken a decidedly nasty turn, to include dirty shenanigans, and has also been steeped in misinformation. I thought it might be helpful to offer a few facts about the SPLOST, both past and proposed, and offer a few observations about the antics that have surrounded the debate.
A SPLOST is a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. What that means is that the citizens of a county can decide to implement an additional 1% sales tax to go towards specific projects, like funding capital projects in a school district. That is exactly what Muscogee County is deciding on March 17th (early voting begins on February 23rd).
The county first implemented a SPLOST for education in 2009. That SPLOST expired in December of last year, so this election is really more about whether or not we want to continue this tax rather than approving a new tax above what the county has been enforcing for the last five years.
According to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer,
“The 2009 SPLOST referendum allowed the school district to collect as much as $223,155,784 for capital projects. But due to the sluggish recovery from the Great Recession, the SPLOST revenue fell about $30 million short. As a result, the board deferred three projects: the new gym at Fort Middle School for district-wide use, other new athletic facilities, and furniture and equipment. Those projects are on the proposed SPLOST list.”
There are other realities that occurred during that last SPLOST, as well. State spending on education will be lower in 2015 than it was in 2008. Although some funding slashed by austerity cuts was restored in the 2015 budget due to the election cycle, the trend of cutting funding is on track to continue through 2017. The Governor has already proposed taking away health insurance and other benefits from bus drivers and other support personnel in the 2015 session. As these cuts continue to cut deeper, more stress is placed on the general fund to at least partially offset those reductions and cuts.
A lot of people have been upset about the new MPEC building. Some derisively refer to it as the “Taj Mahal.” I can only assume that these people are completely unaware of the conditions that many of the central office employees had to work in before that building was built. The last time a district office building was built was almost beyond our civic memory. It was old, dilapidated, and don’t even get me started on the parking. The folks that were working out of Claflin were *really* roughing it. The building was falling down around them. We might not have gotten everything done we wanted to with the last SPLOST, but we added assets to our system that will serve us for decades to come.
It isn’t as if the Muscogee County School District is living lavishly when it comes to its buildings. The average age of our school buildings is 43 years and the average age of our support buildings is 64 years. There comes a point when it is just more expensive to maintain and adapt the older buildings for our current needs.
The SPLOST that is up for referendum on March 17th is a 1% sales tax that would last for five years or until $192,185,000 is collected to pay for or help fund 24 projects. You might not like all 24 projects. You and your family may not have a need to use one of the facilities the new SPLOST would impact. That doesn’t change the fact of their neccesity, however.
I’m not thrilled at the idea of a regressive tax like a SPLOST, but at least Columbus has the advantage of being a regional health and shopping center. We have people coming into the city every single day to help us fund the education of our children, and an education will help lift many children out of the socio-economic group most adversely affected by a sales tax. Until we have a better avenue of revenue open to us, this one will just have to do.
For something so wonky, Columbus finds itself deeply divided over this topic. One of the reasons for that probably has more to do with the way some of the folks advocating for their position have been acting. It also likely has something to do with the way a couple of new members of the board and the superintendent have been conducting themselves.
When Frank Myers ran to replace Beth Harris on the school board, Cathy Williams not only endorsed his campaign but advocated for him tirelessly. And it seemed at the time, at least from my perspective on the outside, that Frank Myers was happy to have her endorsement and all the votes that it brought with it. There is no sign of that anymore. I read a few threads on FaceBook that were just despicable. Mr. Myers and his minions are not only actively slandering Cathy Williams’ record, but besmirching her integrity to boot. I may not agree with every single decision Cathy Williams made as a school board member, but I know that she served this city with honesty and integrity. I know she always did her best to be as informed as she could be on any topic before the board, and I know she always tried to be fair and just in the decisions she had to make. What more can you ask of a board member?
When that wasn’t enough, they created troll accounts to attack Cathy Williams. Troll accounts are accounts set up, sometimes by people with less than honorable motives, to provide anonymity for people who want to cause mischief on FaceBook. It is an account of a fake person who will say all the nasty things someone might not want to say as themselves. One was named Penny Rooker (I’m sure they giggled over the clever name they came up with). She was a fake employee of the school district who hated Cathy Williams and David Lewis almost as much as she LOVED Frank Myers and John Thomas. They stole her avatar photo from a reform rabbi whose picture has appeared on a multitude of other fake people accounts. Another was a troll account that has reared it’s head in Columbus politics prior to the SPLOST debate. This fake guy’s fake name was Ronald Howard….yes, like Opie. Except for *this* fake Opie they decided to use the photo of an alleged child-killer, Wayne Snowden. Yeah…I’ll let the irony of *that* sink in for a moment.
When their shenanigans were called out by Williams and other advocates for the SPLOST, the website and FaceBook page founded by two sitting members of the school board (noschoolboardtax.com) posted the following message:
“Failed FORMER Muscogee County School Board Member Cathy ‘I’m Out’ Williams is littering Facebook today charging that our group is a bunch of liars and our local public school system is ‘outstanding’.”
“This kind of reminds you of John Wells’ last stand, doesn’t it?”
These are the SAME TWO GUYS that Williams campaigned for tirelessly not more than a year ago. My, how times and tunes have changed. And what is the “I’m Out” reference supposed to be about? I’m sure they will say they were referring to her not standing for election again, but isn’t it extra convenient that it also gives a wink and a nod to the rumors Williams’ opposition spread about her in her first election to the school board. The rumor was that Williams was, wait for it… A LESBIAN. To my knowledge, Williams never considered it an insult nor worthy of a response. I would imagine her husband agrees with that. This is just one more transparent tactic in a long line of transparent tactics.
There are quite a few parents in the autistic community who are lobbying hard for the SPLOST because their children will finally gain access to facilities more appropriate for their needs. They have been loud and active.They are NOT, however, using their children as political pawns as some have suggested. They are parents fighting hard for their kids, and it is just plain wrong to assign a cynical motive to that.
The anti-SPLOST folks believe that negative campaigning wins, and they are sticking to their playbook. It isn’t a hard stretch for me to imagine that I will soon be on their target list just for writing this blog.
That being said, the folks on the pro-SPLOST side of the argument are doing a few things that bother me too. Many advocating for the SPLOST have boiled it down to the oversimplification that supporting the SPLOST is “for” the kids and not supporting it is “against” the kids. That isn’t fair. I think everyone in this argument, even people doing things I really don’t like, are engaged and active because of their concern for our children. This is why it gets a bit dodgy to try and assign intent to your political opposition.
There are quite a few pro-SPLOST folks who have tied their support for the SPLOST to their faith in Superintendent Lewis’ ability to deliver. I think this is a mistake. First of all, the success of the SPLOST is not tied to any one person in the district or on the board. It’s success is tied to this community and the accountability that we demand. I wish I could share all this faith in Superintendent Lewis, but I just can’t. He is wildly unpopular among the teachers, and from the gazillion anecdotal stories I have heard it is for good reason. I don’t like his management style and I don’t like the way he talks to his employees. For me, this has so muddied the water, that it is nearly impossible to gauge the reforms he has put in place thus far. I also find myself skeptical that he is going to stay in the district long enough for us to see how effective his vision been.
The convoluted storm of arrogance and grandstanding between Lewis and Myers is tiresome and completely unproductive in my opinion. I am glad we got Harris and Wells off the board, but what have we gotten to replace them? Just a different flavor of bully? The Columbus *I* know is pretty damn sick of these petty politics as usual. Get it together, gentlemen.
As for me, I am supporting the SPLOST. Myers and Thomas insisting that a complete audit be conducted before they approve another SPLOST is counter-productive and not related to the referendum question. No matter what their audit turns up, it cannot replace $132 million in funding. I might also add that the audit they are calling for is incredibly expensive…where is that money supposed to come from? How likely is it we will even undercover enough “waste” to even cover the cost of the audit?
I am supporting the SPLOST despite Lewis, Myers and Thomas. I have to trust that good sense will prevail with other members of the board. I have to trust that the citizens of Columbus will continue to make the most informed decisions that they can and will hold the leaders of the school district accountable for how it spends the SPLOST.
Public school districts are not businesses and public schools are not branch offices. Students aren’t a “product.” They don’t show up at the school as identical lumps of clay and they don’t come off an assembly line as identical widgets with replaceable parts. You can’t run a public school district as if they do.
Please make sure you vote on or before March 17th. The system only works when we participate.
Peace and love, yall.