Catoosa, Murray and Walker counties vote on tax for schools

Catoosa, Murray and Walker counties vote on tax for schools

March 15th, 2011 by Adam Crisp in News

Staff Photo by Ben Benton Catoosa County Public Schools Superintendent Denia Reese says the school system, and others across Georgia, face major financial challenges in the coming year. Officials have tried to bolster reserves to help fend off cuts, she says.

Three counties in North Georgia will ask voters today to renew penny sales taxes meant for education.

Catoosa, Murray and Walker counties have the education special purpose local option sales tax - ESPLOST for short - on ballots today.

Early voting ended Friday, so voters who care to vote on the taxes can do so at local polling places. Georgia law requires 50 percent plus one vote for the measures to be approved.

County school leaders say the taxes are sorely needed for building and capital-improvement projects.

State law bars counties from using ESPLOST money for ongoing expenses such as teacher salaries, so the money goes toward building projects and other capital projects such as buying computers and other classroom fixtures.

"We no longer receive technology funds from the state, so a primary focus for [the ESPLOST renewal] will be purchasing new technology and upgrading our technology infrastructure," said Catoosa County Superintendent Denia Reese.

All the taxes are approved for five-year increments. School leaders are quick to point out that today's tax vote just renews an existing tax and doesn't create a new levy. Many Georgia school systems have had penny taxes since the mid-1990s.

Walker County and Chickamauga City Schools plan to renovate and add to several existing schools with their ESPLOST money, the total of which could reach $32.5 million over five years, according to projections.

In Catoosa, the tax would fund technology upgrades across the county, a new gym at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, a media center expansion and classroom additions at West Side Elementary and a new auditorium on the shared campus of Ringgold High School and Ringgold Middle School.

In Murray County's case, the tax will pay off bonds the county issued after the previous tax passed. The roughly $23 million earned from the tax went toward a new roof at Murray County High School and the construction of North Murray High School. But roughly $17.5 million of North Murray's construction cost is still unpaid.

"If the ESPLOST doesn't pass, it will have to be paid for by property taxes," said Steve Loughridge, the Murray school system's finance director.

Contact staff writer Adam Crisp at acrisp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6323. Follow him online: www.facebook.com/crispreporter and www.twitter.com/adam_crisp.