Forsyth County Schools plans to put a new referendum on the ballot for voters in November to help finance restorations in older schools, building expansions and a new elementary school.
If approved, the Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or E-SPLOST, referendum would continue with a 1% sales tax on goods and services, meaning anyone who spends money in Forsyth County, regardless of where they live, would contribute to these capital projects within the district.
The 1% tax is currently in place as voters have approved five other E-SPLOST referendums in the past, the most recent being in 2016. With E-SPLOST V ending in June 2022, FCS is giving voters the option to continue with the sales tax with E-SPLOST VI.
The special sales tax, which lasts for five years or until it reaches an approved maximum in funding, is used to help finance capital needs within the system. Operational needs, on the other hand, are paid for in part through property tax collections.
FCS Spokesperson Jennifer Caracciolo presented a list of the system’s capital needs in the next five years to the Forsyth County Board of Education at its most recent board meeting on Tuesday, June 15. District leaders spoke to departments across the system to evaluate their needs.
Among the needs listed is a new elementary school to serve as a replacement for Midway Elementary, which has faced overcrowding issues in recent years due to its small student capacity. Midway was originally built in 1961, the same year as the former Cumming Elementary, which was also replaced in 2002.
Caracciolo said the district is unable to expand the school because of its location where it is surrounded by businesses on Highway 9.
If approved, the replacement for Midway will be built on property near Denmark High School, and it will be similar in design to Poole’s Mill Elementary, which opened at the beginning of this past school year. The building and furniture for the replacement school is expected to cost $38 million.
Aside from the Midway replacement, other expenses consist of upgrades, repairs and refreshes for older schools and equipment in the district.
“We built 24 schools in 20 years,” Caracciolo said. “It’s just like your homes. Things break: roofs, AC, things need to be painted.”
Some needed additions include a new band room for Forsyth Central High School, the only school that has yet to receive an update to its band room through previous referendums. The district would also use the funds to expand Vickery Creek Middle School’s band room to match others in the district. These additions are expected to cost $4 million and $800,000, respectively.
North Forsyth, Forsyth Central and South Forsyth high schools, the three oldest schools in the district, also currently do not have up-to-date tracks outside and are unable to host certain sporting events. The district wants to improve the tracks to match others in the district.
These improvements are expected to cost $1 million each at Central and South. Caracciolo said the expected cost at North is higher, at $3 million, because the track is not inside of an athletic stadium, and it will cost more to prepare the area for the improvements.
Caracciolo explained the system also plans to continue to invest in technology within its schools, planning for spending on virtual infrastructure, new Chromebooks and replacements for older devices and programs.
“I can remember a time when we had the largest installations of whiteboards in the world,” Caracciolo said. “That’s kind of hard to think about now, 20 years later, because it’s just what we do. It’s how we teach. But because of the vision and the insight and the investment the voters made into technology we are where we are today.”
Along with updating old technology, the system wants to refresh furniture, fixtures and equipment in each of its schools based on the needs. They are planning to spend $12.5 million in funding for these updates.
The transportation department also wants to replace older vehicles, 27 of which are more than 20 years old. The current plan is to spend around $2.3 million on new buses and $1.1 million on employee vehicles.
Aside from replacing older items in the district, the system wants to continue to invest in Teaching and Learning programs such as Career and Technical pathways in middle and high schools and fine arts courses.
In the last referendum, the district invested into its STEM programs, which they plan to continue with if the E-SPLOST is approved.
Along with these programs, the district plans to invest more heavily into special education, which has grown significantly in FCS in recent years. Due to the growth within special education, the district wants to double the size of the iFocus Intervention Center, which specializes in education for students with autism and is located on Forsyth Central’s campus.
FCS expects that all of these needs will equal an overall cost of $237.2 million. While Caracciolo presented this list to the BOE on Tuesday, the board members will not vote on final approval of the list until its meeting at 6 p.m., on Tuesday, July 20.
The board must also vote to approve the recommended wording of the question regarding E-SPLOST that will appear on the ballot in November. The current wording states that the money would be spent toward the improvements and new school mentioned in the list of capital needs.
The ballot wording sets the maximum cost for capital investments at $223 million and the maximum amount for bond debt payments at $50 million.
When voters approved a new bond for FCS in 2018, which essentially acts as a loan, they also committed to making these bond payments out of the next E-SPLOST. This means that if voters approve E-SPLOST VI in November, bond debt payments will be made through that funding before the district begins on capital projects.
“That’s important because we have to make those bond payments,” Caracciolo said. “We already have those projects in place, and we’re committed to them.”
This means that if the new E-SPLOST is not approved, the $50 million in bond payments would need to be financed through local property taxes, and “property taxes may need to be reevaluated.”
Caracciolo said, for the first time in nearly three decades, the district is not planning on having to put up a new bond referendum in the next five years, mainly due to an increase in recent E-SPLOST revenue.
Due to growth within Forsyth County, the district usually requires additional funding through bonds on top of E-SPLOST funding to help keep up with schools’ needs. The most recent bond, approved in 2018, helped fund the new schools and buildings opening this summer such as Hendricks Middle and East Forsyth High.
Over the past year, however, district leaders have noticed an increase in E-SPLOST funding due to more people spending money inside the county.
“We’re now to the point that our local retail and shopping is now keeping up with our local needs,” Caracciolo said.
FCS plans to release further details on E-SPLOST VI and the capital needs it would help finance in the coming months. For more information and to see the current proposed ballot question, visit the FCS website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.
Voters will have the opportunity to approve or deny the ESPLOST continuation on their ballot in November when they also vote on a mayor for the City of Cumming and other local elected offices.
Caracciolo noted that SPLOST and bond referendums relating to the Forsyth County government or City of Cumming are not related to the school system in any way. They are all separate government entities, and E-SPLOST referendums are used to fund capital projects for the county’s schools rather than for county projects such as roads and stoplights.
The Forsyth County Board of Voter Registrations and Elections discussed the E-SPLOST election at their meeting on Monday, June 21.
During the meeting, members discussed election day polling place changes for two of the county’s precincts, the Polo and Sawnee precincts.
Voters in the Polo Precinct will likely vote at the Fowler Park Recreation Center, 4110 Carolene Way, which is also used by voters in the Fowler Precinct, instead of Grace Chapel Church, where Polo voters previously cast ballots.
For the Sawnee Precinct, where voters typically go to the Forsyth County Parks and Recreation Natural Resources Operations Center at 1605 Canton Highway, voting will likely be held this year at Greater Heights Baptist Church at 3790 Post Road.
The operations center, which will not be used this year due to planned work on the building at the time of the election, will also not be an advance voting location this fall.
No action was taken at the meeting, and the matter will come back to a future meeting.
Mandi Smith, director of the county’s department of voter registrations and elections, said likely the only question on the ballot for voters in unincorporated Forsyth would be the E-SPLOST. Residents in the City of Cumming may also vote in city elections for mayor and two city council seats, depending on who qualifies for the races in August.
Kelly Whitmire contributed to this report.