Chatham County voters to consider extending education sales tax through 2026 in Nov. 2 election
Savannah-Chatham school superintendent Ann Levett on ESPLOST vote
Savannah-Chatham County Public School System superintendent Ann Levett on the upcoming ESPLOST vote and what to know.
Savannah Morning News
The Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) has generated more than $1 billion for the Savannah Chatham County public schools over the last 14 years, money the district has used to eliminate bond debt, repair and modernize existing school facilities, purchase technology and school buses, and build modern buildings to replace aging ones.
Chatham County residents will vote on whether to extend the penny sales tax agreement in a Nov. 2 election. The measure’s approval would mean five more years of funding for capital projects; failure would lead to the expiration of the tax on Dec. 31.
Dollars from an ESPLOST extension would go toward facility upgrades, including the construction to a new campus at Windsor Forest High School and site upgrades, additions and modifications to Pooler, Bloomingdale, Jacob G. Smith, Garden City and Shuman elementary schools; Georgetown K-8, Garrison K-8, Godley Station K-8 schools; the Henderson E. Formey Early Learning Center; Southwest, West Chatham and Hubert Middle schools; and Savannah High and the Coastal Georgia Comprehensive Academy. E-Learning Centers would also be established and feature centralized labs to do science work or CTAE assignments.
According to state law, ESPLOST funds can be used only for capital projects — construction, technology, transportation, learning equipment/resources, and bond debt reduction. Penny sales tax dollars are not to be used for personnel recruiting or staff salaries or benefits.
School district officials are touting the benefit to students of new school buildings. ESPLOST funds have been used to build 19 new schools since the tax’s inception.
“What a way to show your care for students than to have them operating in buildings that have been modernized or replaced, so that they can learn and experience the love of their teachers and their community in those spaces,” Superintendent Ann Levett said.
Why a penny sales tax?
According to a summary posted on the district website at sccpss.com, without ESPLOST, property taxes would potentially be higher as the School Board would need to raise the millage rate to fund capital improvements.
Among other Georgia school districts of comparable size, Chatham County has one of the lowest millage rates. Savannah-Chatham’s millage rate of 18.1 mills is below that of Henry County (20 mills), located in the Atlanta metro area, and Columbus-Muscogee schools (23.321 mills), and is comparable to Augusta-Richmond schools (18.419).
Proponents of ESPLOST tout the penny sales tax as a preferable revenue-raising method because non-Chatham Countians contribute to the funds. They include residents of nearby counties who shop in Chatham County, tourists who visit Savannah annually and travelers along Interstate 95 who make a pit stop within the county.
Estimates are that 35% to 40% of ESLOST revenues come from out-of-towners.
ESPLOST “pennies have mounted up.” said Savannah-Chatham Board President Joe Buck. “They have built structures that are good for our students. We have not had to borrow money to build new buildings.”
Another valuable use of ESPLOST dollars is in technology. In 2016, SCCPSS embarked on a technology upgrade plan with the goal of obtaining one computer for every three students using funds from ESPLOST II and III.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and switching to virtual learning for all students in 2020, the district purchased Chromebooks, laptops, iPads for all students in mid- to late 2020. In 2021, ESPLOST III funds were used to replace computers in school computer labs that were removed and given to students during the initial distribution of electronic devices in spring 2020.
More than 1,000 teachers had their aging classroom computers replaced with new devices.
In addition to student and teacher tech improvements, ESPLOST funds are being used for security upgrades and energy-efficient lighting.
District officials have made establishing security vestibules at school entrances a priority since the February 2018 school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Of the 36 schools that needed upgrades, 13 have added these safety features and one more is currently under construction.. Another 22 locations are slated for upgrades at an estimated cost of $5.3 million, with $4.7 million available from existing funds.
Energy conservation upgrades, including LED lighting, have been completed at Butler, Ellis Montessori, Garden City, and Southwest elementary schools and Coastal Middle School. Schools slated to receive energy efficient upgrades are Garrison School for the Arts, Heard Elementary, Myers Middle, and Johnson High schools.
Parents and other stakeholders in Savannah-Chatham County public schools have voiced their opinions about ESPLOST funding and projects.
Barbara Augsdorfer is the education and nonprofits reporter for the Savannah Morning News. Reach her at BAugsdorfer@gannett.com or on Twitter @Babs7983.
Each Sunday leading up to the Nov. 2 municipal elections, Savannah Morning News journalists will preview a race or an issue that will be on the ballot.
Sept 12: Tybee Island
Sept. 26: Bloomingdale