The debate over the Cobb Ed-SPLOST intensifies as early voting begins

The logo on front of a Cobb County School District facilityCobb County School District sign (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

By Rebecca Gaunt

School improvements and district accountability are on the ballot in the form of Ed-SPLOST VI as Cobb parents debate their reasons to support or oppose.

Voters will have the chance to decide on Nov. 2. Early voting starts Tuesday. A list of voting locations is here and the full Ed-SPLOST VI project notebook is here.

Major items on the list for CCSD include a second career academy to be located in north Cobb, a new elementary school in south Cobb and a massive update to Sprayberry High School.

Sprayberry High has been the subject of a considerable campaign by families for a full rebuild of the main building, which was built in 1973.

Shane Spink is one of the parents advocating for Sprayberry. He has also been involved in efforts to improve the blighted Sprayberry Crossing shopping center which is located less than a half mile away.

“[Sprayberry High School’s] completion will transform the area and match on the outside, all the great things going on the inside,” Spink wrote in a Facebook post.

“The Ed-SPLOST is not about the curriculum or school board policies. The Ed- SPLOST is not partisan. The project list for Cobb County School District reaches across party lines of the school boards,” he continued.

Initially, school board member David Chastain, whose district includes Sprayberry, appeared hesitant regarding a full rebuild. Spink told the Courier that now that the district has had more time to look at the site, issues like meeting ADA compliance and the open classroom style of the time period it was built should necessitate rebuilding rather than modification.

“And really the facts are we won’t be able to know 100% how they will do it until Ed-SPLOST VI passes and they can hire the folks to go into the building and start the breakdown analysis on the scope of the work,” Spink told the Courier.

Marietta City Schools plans to use the funds to renovate or build additions to the Marietta Center for Advanced Academics, Hickory Hills Elementary, West Side Elementary, Sawyer Road Elementary and Marietta High School.

This year, however, has many Cobb County School District parents who say they have wholeheartedly supported previous education SPLOSTS, saying they will vote no for the first time.

Suzanne Wooley told the Courier, “Having worked in schools and knowing the difference these funds can make, I didn’t arrive at this decision lightly. It isn’t a revenge vote due to the lax COVID protocols. For me, this is truly a vote of no confidence in our current board and district leadership. It comes down to a matter of trust.”

Wooley said she doesn’t trust district leadership to spend the money responsibly or for the board to hold it responsible if the money is wasted on unproven technology, such as the faulty UV sanitizing lights that were installed last year.

Nor, she said, does she trust proper vetting to take place before entering contracts.

In August, the board voted 4-3 to hire the Taylor English law firm to redraw the district maps. The three Democratic board members requested more time to gather information and seek bids, but were outvoted by the four Republicans.

“This board has demonstrated time and again that they are not responsible with our children or our money. There is zero accountability for questionable decisions. And those that attempt to do their job by asking appropriate questions and seeking clarification are shut down,” Wooley said.

Megan Dickherber said she and her husband are both voting against the Ed-SPLOST.

“Ordinarily, I always vote for giving money to schools, and even voting no this time makes me sweat a little because our schools need that support. The bottom line is that the fiscal decisions made by this board have been questionable at best. I’m a scientist (virologist by training) and could not believe that a dollar was spent on ozone hand sanitizers or UV lights. And the way those contracts and others proposed since were given out smacked of “good ol’ boy” networks,” she said.

Shannon Heath said she’s setting her concerns aside and voting yes because she prefers the accountability that comes with how SPLOST funds are used. She also prefers that to the district raising money through higher property taxes.

“You can choose to do a 1% sales tax and then go work to be a part of the solution, or you can say no. Nothing gets done and costs go up, and then they will have to raise property taxes. All while many of the things you take as normal in Cobb will slip away,” she wrote on Facebook.

Members of the watchdog group Watching the Funds raised questions about recent financial decisions made in the district and do not support the passing of Ed-SPLOST VI at this time, pointing out that it has been put up for a vote early and can be placed on the ballot again next year, with the hope the board will make changes in the meantime.

Stacy Efrat, a parent volunteer with the group, addressed her concerns about ventilation to the board during public comment last month. The U.S. Department of Education recommends upgrading the HVAC filters to MERV-13 or higher to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to an open records request she filed, the district is using MERV-8. Nor did the district request any funds for ventilation improvements on its application for American Rescue Plan funds.

“It’s not adequate for COVID, and [Ragsdale] is saying that it is,” Efrat told the Courier. “I, personally, am voting no on SPLOST. This will be my first time ever voting no in my history of living in Cobb County. It’s because over the last two years, over and over again, the district is not spending money responsibly.

Heather Tolley-Bauer of Watching the Funds concurred. The AlertPoint crisis management system is one reason. After a systemwide malfunction in February, she took a closer look at the $5 million system. The group put out a survey to Cobb staff. Of the 400 respondents, 96% said they had not been trained on the system. According to Tolley-Bauer, the district is now in talks with a different company for a similar product.

“This is why we have foundations that are paying for the science and technology teachers and nobody is talking about that,” Tolley-Bauer said.

The Mableton Improvement Coalition is hosting an online forum Tuesday night about Ed-SPLOST. Joel Cope, president of the MIC, said the panel includes parents and members of the education community representing a variety of opinions. Attendees can submit questions when they register at this link.

The MIC doesn’t take an official stance, but Cope wanted to provide an opportunity for people to “take part in the conversation before casting ballots.”

Cobb County School District’s Facebook page’s ad library indicates just how much emphasis the district has put on the referendum passing. Multiple ads were launched in September featuring different schools and the potential projects on the table. The district has spent nearly $6,000 on Facebook advertising. Though that total includes a few ads from 2019 regarding dual enrollment and teacher raises, the bulk of the ads related to Ed-SPLOST VI.

If approved, the 1% sales tax will be collected from 2024-2029 and is projected to bring in close to $900 million in that period. Ed-SPLOST V will continue to collect through the end of 2023.

Ed-SPLOST is separate from the county SPLOST that funds road improvements, libraries and parks. SPLOST funds are required to be used for capital outlay projects identified in the referendum and voted on. They cannot be used for salaries and operational expenses.

Cobb County School District did not respond to a request for comment.

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.