Education

It”s All About Putting Students in Classrooms

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Alvin Wilbanks
CEO/Superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools

On Feb. 5, Gwinnett voters will go to the polls to take part in the Presidential Preference Primary. Also on the ballot that day will be a question put to voters by the Gwinnett County Board of Education. That question is about keeping up with our student population growth by building more schools and classrooms and investing in technology.

The ballot question essentially will ask: "Should the Gwinnett County Board of Education be authorized to sell general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $750 million for the purposes of constructing new school facilities, upgrading technology, and making other needed school improvements?" If voters approve the bond referendum, the school system will be able to build more schools and classrooms and improve technology systemwide… and do so without a tax increase.

Some background may be helpful in understanding why the bond referendum is needed at this time. "The Plan," unveiled in the summer of 2006, is the school system”s strategy for bringing our classroom needs in check by 2014. The ambitious building program outlined in The Plan would provide at least 37 new schools and numerous additions. As more classrooms came on line, fewer and fewer students would have to go to school in trailers. Funding for The Plan would be in three phases, the first a continuation of the one-cent sales tax for schools, or SPLOST.

Voters responded favorably to The Plan, and in November 2006, extended the education SPLOST for another five years. As a result, we are able to build and equip 20 new school facilities, all of which will open by school year 2009-2010. Technology upgrades, land purchases, and facility improvements systemwide also are underway. All told, about $850 million in capital projects will be accomplished with funding from the one-cent sales tax.

Although money generated by the sales tax goes a long way toward keeping The Plan on track, we would soon fall behind without funding for Phase II. That is where the general obligation (GO) bonds can make a difference. From the outset, Phase II of The Plan called for an alternate source of funding. Since the debt from selling the proposed GO bonds could be paid without raising taxes, we believe they are the best funding source for Phase II. Current taxes for debt service are sufficient to cover the bond payments because past debt is being paid down each year. The Board can fund the needed classrooms and projects in Phase II by keeping the debt service tax rate at its current level.

That is why the Gwinnett County Board of Education will bring the bond referendum before voters on Feb. 5. If voters approve, we will have funding for eight more new schools, additions at

10 schools, technology, land, and systemwide improvements. If the referendum fails, we will not be able to continue our building program beyond 2009. Even with the addition of thousands of new students each year, the school system is making progress in providing needed classrooms: Four new school buildings opened last August, and another six will open in August 2008. Parents tell us they want a quality education for their children. That includes classrooms in buildings, not trailers, as well as up-to-date technology.

A citizens” committee is hard at work to inform voters about the Feb. 5 bond referendum. They will be speaking to civic clubs, homeowners associations, PTA meetings, and other events. Information about The Plan also can be found on the school system”s Web site at www.gwinnett.k12.ga.us.

Building classrooms without the need for new taxes… that”s Phase II of The Plan. That is our commitment to the parents, children, and citizens of Gw