Time to reallocate Atlanta’s public schools sales tax

By Guest Columnist MICHAEL ROBISON, founder, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Lanier Parking Holdings.

I grew up attending Atlanta public schools, so I can appreciate the value of renovating aging schools and building new ones. At Morningside Elementary, I recall distractions such as peeling paint, noisy plumbing, and sweltering late summer heat due to a lack of central air conditioning.michael-robison

So there would seem to be cause for celebration two years ago when 80 percent of voters supported extending the extra one-penny sales tax “for educational purposes” for another five years.

The problem is the Atlanta Public Schools Special Option Local Sales Tax (SPLOST), first approved in 1997, has sent the system more than $1 billion, and it should have long since solved the capital needs at Morningside and everywhere else. For that amount, APS literally could have torn down every building in the school system and rebuilt them.

And yet, the tax never seems to go away, despite the repeated promise from APS not to request a renewal.

What could we do with the $100 million collected each year through that one penny instead of more massive construction projects for a school system whose population is stagnant or shrinking?

We could invest in an integrated transportation system, helping to ease the oppressive traffic that is putting Atlanta at a competitive disadvantage with our peer cities.

For example, returning electric streetcars to Peachtree would “complete the trip” for thousands of commuters who refuse to board mass transit because it doesn’t go where they are going.

We could restore vitality to the city’s core asset, Peachtree, as proposed by the Peachtree Corridor Task Force, which was created by Mayor Shirley Franklin to establish a new vision for Atlanta’s signature street.

That group, of which I was a proud member, proposed a transformation of Peachtree that would invigorate Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead, boosting economic activity among residents, workers, and tourists.

We could further other public-private improvements Mayor Franklin has envisioned such as a comprehensive commuter rail network anchored by a downtown multi-modal station, linking heavy rail, regional bus service, the Peachtree streetcar, and the BeltLine.

These and other ambitious yet practical projects that would financially benefit all of Georgia are repeatedly shelved for lack of funding, while our public school system continues drawing another $100 million from the SPLOST each year.

Why is this insidious misallocation of public resources so hard to shake?

The first reason is the ballot measure itself. With almost no public debate over the issue, how many voters would reject a tax extension “for new schools, land, additions, renovations, equipment and technology systems,” especially when the ballot measure itself promises to “reduce ad valorem property taxes?”

You might as well expect voters to reject motherhood and apple pie. However, when you look closely at the description, how can you justify “new schools and additions” for a school system that is shrinking, and how can you spend more than $1 billion on “renovations, equipment, and technology?”

The only way to put an end to this madness is for our leaders to lead, starting with the Atlanta Public Schools. The APS website says the SPLOST has already created “21st century learning environments,” with state-of-the-art technology that sometimes includes a laptop computer for every student.

School Superintendent Beverly Hall justified a renewal of the tax in order to convert some high schools into smaller schools. An interesting experiment, perhaps, but is the benefit clear enough to merit setting aside our other pressing needs?

The American Association of School Administrators named Hall 2009 National Superintendent of the Year, citing her leadership that “has turned Atlanta into a model of urban school reform.”

I applaud Dr. Hall for her accomplishments, but I am very concerned that this award will further mask her failure to lead her colleagues away from dependence on a funding mechanism that drains resources better spent elsewhere.

I am sure Dr. Hall could draw some dubious, hypothetical connection between these capital projects and student performance, but you simply cannot justify the enormity of the dollars being spent on new buildings for a school system of this size.

If the APS is unwilling to take the lead, which I am concerned they are not, then the mayor or city council should. But since they have no legal standing, it won’t be an easy task.

The City of Atlanta votes on the tax jointly with Fulton County, Decatur and DeKalb County, so keeping the renewal of the tax off the 2012 ballot will require the other three to do the same.

As that election nears, our next mayor and our future city council members should use their bully pulpits to take a stand against this wasteful spending and convince our metro neighbors to follow suit.

That is a concept 80 percent of voters could get behind, that is if their leaders would give them the chance to make an informed choice.

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