May 17—"Whitfield County residents have strongly supported ESPLOST" for more than two decades, "and we're thankful for that," and they'll have another opportunity to do so by voting to approve one on Tuesday, May 24, said Dalton Public Schools Superintendent Tim Scott.
The current ESPLOST (Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) in Whitfield County ends Dec. 31, so ESPLOST VI — if approved by voters — would begin Jan. 1, 2023, said Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Mike Ewton. ESPLOST started in Whitfield County in July 1997, and only three of Georgia's 159 counties currently do not have an ESPLOST.
The maximum collection amount for the five-year ESPLOST VI would be $140 million. Dalton Public Schools and Whitfield County Schools share in ESPLOST funds, with Dalton Public Schools to receive a maximum of nearly $52 million, or 37%, while $88 million would be earmarked for Whitfield County Schools based on enrollment.
A SPLOST is a 1% sales tax on most goods sold in a county. School systems typically use their version to finance capital improvements — like renovating schools and building new ones — technology, safety and security improvements, and buses, but not operating expenses.
SPLOSTs and ESPLOSTs are "a shared tax," Scott said. Visitors to the area contribute by spending in hotels, restaurants, shops and other places so the burden doesn't fall entirely on a county's residents.
Voting on Tuesday, May 24, will be in the regular locations for elections in Dalton and Whitfield County. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Since 1997, Whitfield County Schools has built four middle schools, three elementary schools and a pair of high schools with ESPLOST funds, Ewton said. More recently, ESPLOST covered approximately $19 million of the $24 million required for a new Valley Point Middle School and approximately $24 million of the $30 million needed for a new North Whitfield Middle School.
"We're appreciative of state money, but you can't wait on state money to build a building," which is why ESPLOST is so important, Ewton said. State money "is a supplement."
The current ESPLOST was crucial in Dalton Public Schools creating The Dalton Academy, a new high school for grades 10-12 that opened this school year, Scott said. Both Brookwood School and City Park School received extensive remodeling with ESPLOST funds.
"We're looking to raise up to $88 million" with ESPLOST VI, and "we have far more needs than this, but these are the (top) priorities," Ewton said. In fact, architects have identified $143 million "of critical needs," but those needs have been classified into three tiers.
"A lot of these things, (like) sewer, roof and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) are not sexy, until they fail, but, they are very important," Ewton said. Southeast Whitfield High School, which now has the most students of any high school in Whitfield County Schools, is in the middle of extensive roof and HVAC work thanks to $10 million from the current ESPLOST.
The next ESPLOST would assist with renovations at eight elementary schools and one middle school, while other schools would receive upgrades in energy conservation and safety and security, he said. Accessibility for those with disabilities needs to be addressed at several playgrounds, and "playground equipment is very expensive."
Access for those with disabilities would also be addressed at the athletic fields of Eastbrook, New Hope and Westside middle schools, along with drainage problems, he said. Athletic fields at Coahulla Creek, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield high schools would also be upgraded, at an estimated cost of $17-$20.4 million.
The system would switch from natural grass to artificial turf at the high school football/soccer fields and baseball/softball fields, he said.
"The sod never gets to repair itself after football season."
Movable fences would be installed at the baseball/softball fields to adjust for the differing dimensions of baseball versus softball, he said. Each of the tennis courts at the high schools would receive "rehab (or) replacement."
Combining athletic fields at Coahulla Creek and switching to artificial turf would allow the school to construct an agriculture building or greenhouse on what is currently used as a football practice field, Ewton said.
"Coahulla Creek needs an agriculture facility, (as) there's no barn or greenhouse there like Southeast and Northwest have."
The system would earmark $10-$12 million for technology device refreshes and approximately $2 million to expand the cafeteria at Southeast, he said.
"Southeast has 1,500 kids, now, and they are jammed in there at lunch."
Roan School is at the top of the needs list for Dalton Public Schools, according to Scott. The school, which is more than 50 years old, is still heated by an aging boiler, so ESPLOST funds would help install a modern, efficient HVAC system, as well as provide for painting, flooring and lighting improvements at an estimated cost of $7-$9 million.
Adding six classrooms at Westwood School is also planned, at an estimated cost of $3-$4 million, he said. Westwood has 33 classrooms — only Roan, with 32, has fewer among the system's elementary buildings — and none of the system's other elementary schools have fewer than 48 classrooms.
Renovations at Park Creek School, tech device refreshes for students and staff, and capital improvements at Harmon Field are also on the priority list, according to Scott. Dalton Public Schools could also convert the former Morris Innovative High School building to a central office for finance, human resources, enrollment, teaching and learning, and the superintendent's office, as administrators are currently spread out in four locations around the city, but that's lower on the list as "student needs come first."
A list of proposed ESPLOST projects for Whitfield County Schools can be found at www.wcsga.net/ESPLOST. The proposed list for Dalton Public Schools can be found at www.daltonpublicschools.com/district-resources/esplost.