Legislature should allow redirecting local ESPLOST funds to operate Fayette schools


NEWS ANALYSIS — A few weeks ago, I referenced a guest editorial in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (AJC) that was part of a series addressing educational legislative issues in the 2024 session. I took issue with Steven Owens’ comparison between Fayette and Clayton schools.

First, let me apologize as it is, Dr. Steven Owens, an achievement worthy of note for sure. To be clear, Dr. Owens and I are on the same side urging Georgia to meet its obligations under the State of Georgia Constitution to provide for public education under the Quality Basic Education (QBE) Formula. However, the Georgia Legislature has often underfunded the QBE forcing local systems to raise the difference.

I am always concerned when someone mentions Fayette County public schools because they often miss how serious our cost and funding issues are due to a restricted tax digest and our strategic school costs.

Previously I have stated that a school board source reports that nearly thirty percent of our property tax digest is exempt from School property taxes. This creates a challenge in times of rising costs to maintain the “Fayette Advantage” of smaller class sizes in smaller neighborhood schools.

I am proud to say our quality schools have managed to do a great job providing Fayette’s children a superior education while maintaining a cost near the average in Georgia. They prove that you do not need an endless supply of funds to maintain great schools.

Dr. Owens is correct that Fayette County property values are much higher than neighboring Clayton. We agree that a large factor in the difference in property values is the quality of our excellent Fayette County Public Schools. My focus is to ensure our schools are properly funded to ensure their continued success.

While his concern for our Clayton neighbors is commendable, in his rush to defend them, he missed that I offered an option to consider that every system can use.

By redirecting a portion of the ESPLOST to operations, a county can relieve pressure on funding without raising property taxes. I pointed out that after several successive ESPLOSTs, both counties have opportunities to redirect funds from non-urgent projects. We need action by our legislature to change the ESPLOST laws to allow this.

Given that a majority of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson Airport is in Clayton County, they expect to earn more than $60 million a year in ESPLOST funds. Our legislature can provide this option with no cost to the state budget and Clayton would have approximately $1,000 more per student without taking funds from Fayette’s schools.

Later in his AJC editorial, Dr. Owens suggests that the state do a one-time modernization of the school transportation fleet using accumulated reserves.

While Fayette has updated our fleet over the past four ESPLOSTS, (and Clayton has had 7 ESPLOSTS) I would urge the legislature to save the reserves to regularly fully fund the QBE education funding program which has only been fully funded a handful of times since 2008.

The Georgia Legislature must meet its obligations to our Georgia public schools.

[Neil Sullivan is a finance/accounting executive and CPA. He has lived in Peachtree City over 20 years with his wife Jennifer, a Fayette County History teacher and son Jackson, a sophomore at Erskine College. He has been active in public school related issues in Fayette County, leading three E-SPLOST initiatives as chairman of Fayette Citizens for Children. He has appeared previously on these pages in letters to the editor.]