E-SPLOST needed to keep Fayette at the top

There is a lot of conversation about the cost of our excellent Fayette County schools. Some suggest that money is “misspent,” although the cost to educate one student full-time equivalent (FTE) is consistently near the average across Georgia while our quality Fayette County Schools are consistently in the top five county systems in the state in academic performance.

All systems receive funds from the state of Georgia based on the constitutionally required, but antiquated Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula. Based on 2016 data, the average student in Georgia receives $4,917 in state funds. Fayette receives $4,566 or $351 less per student for a total of approximately $7 million.

Further, the average Georgia student had approximately 53 percent of their education paid for by the state versus nearly 48 percent for a Fayette student. Part of this disparity is due to the “fair share” reduction in the QBE which requires each system to deduct 5 mills of their property tax digest from their otherwise earned funds.

Another part of the disparity is due to the “equalization grants” which seek to narrow the inequality between the 10 percent of districts (18 of 180) with higher property values and districts with lower property values.

The good news is our excellent schools make Fayette a desirable place to live, which drives our home values. Ironically, that success indirectly costs us state funds.

Another reason for the different percentages of funding above is that for decades we have chosen to develop, utilize, and enjoy the “Fayette Advantage” of smaller class sizes, K-1 parapros, smaller community schools, as well as experienced and well-qualified teachers. This investment is approximately $20 million or $1,000 per student. This is an investment that we have made for a very long time with great results.

Due to the investments above as well as the state of Georgia’s failure to fund its own formula, our school board had been forced to raise our tax millage rate to 20 mills, which is the maximum allowed by law.

Recently the school board has been able to gradually reduce the millage to 19.5 mills, which is a savings of approximately $60-$100 per homeowner. This reduction has been made possible by both rising property values and the ESPLOST, which has paid for necessary capital items for our quality public schools since 2009.

An ESPLOST is a one cent sales tax added to non-internet purchases inside Fayette County that we have been paying since 2009. In fact, almost anywhere we go in Georgia we are paying an ESPLOST, as 158 out of Georgia’s 159 counties have one.

The fact that nearly every county has an ESPLOST is at least partially behind the legislature’s decision to reduce QBE funding, based on my conversation with Senator Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) who at the time was the Senate majority leader and a candidate for governor.

In Fayette County, the ESPLOST has paid for renovations to several schools, the purchase of newer school buses, necessary textbook updates, reduction in school bonds, and proven technology necessary for our students to be competitive with others across Georgia.

As we consider the ESPLOST question on the coming November ballot, it is important to ask ourselves what will happen if we choose not to provide this funding to our schools. How will we maintain our buildings, technology, and most importantly our “Fayette Advantage”?

Nearly 90 percent of our operating budget is labor costs, which substantially comprises compensation for our excellent, senior, and well-qualified teachers. Furthermore, if we choose no, it is important to remember that we will continue to pay to support the schools in 157 other Georgia counties including when we shop in Ashley Park (Coweta), go see the Falcons (Fulton), cheer the Bulldogs (Clarke), as well as shop in many area malls. However, the residents of these counties will not be supporting our Fayette County schools.

Neil Sullivan
Peachtree City, Ga.