VALDOSTA -- Administrators, teachers, students, parents and others from the Lowndes County and Valdosta City School Systems hope Lowndes County voters will pass the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum scheduled for March 19.

The special election will be conducted for the purpose of "seeking the approval or rejection of the resolution which provides for the imposing of a 1 percent special sales and use tax for educational purposes for use by the" two school systems.

Without the SPLOST, Sam Allen, superintendent of Valdosta City Schools, said a number of educational needs would not be addressed.

"We have a number of projects we would not be able to do without the SPLOST," Allen said. "A lot of our facilities would not be upgraded for another 10 to 15 years, and we would be forced to rely on a property tax increase or more state money. The likelihood of receiving additional dollars from the state for these projects ... nowadays, it is almost impossible. The state sees the SPLOST as a way of funding those types of things on a local level."

The largest project on the city school system's agenda is the replacement of Lomax-Pinevale Elementary School, the oldest school in the system, Allen said.

"This school was originally built to house high school students, and we feel it is appropriate to replace it at this time," Allen said, adding the new facility will be equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and technology.

However, the old facility will not be torn down.

"That facility is part of this community," Allen continued. "Even though we plan to relocate the new school to a different site, we feel like the old facility still has some potential uses for the community and could serve them for a number of years. We have no plans to demolish that building."

The proposed new Lomax-Pinevale Elementary School facility will be similar to the new Sallas-Mahone Elementary School facility completed in July 2000 as a SPLOST project.

But the Lomax-Pinevale project is not the school system's No. 1 priority.

"I hope our first priority will be modifications of West Gordon (Elementary School), addressing some of their safety concerns, etc.," Allen said. "That's my recommendation."

Representatives from both school systems said the majority of their proposed projects are simply upgrades and modifications of existing school buildings to make sure the children have a safe, clean, leak-free facility in which they can learn.

The biggest project on the Lowndes County School System's "wish" list is to finish upgrading the high school.

"We have a number of things left to do there," said Dr. Thomas E. Hagler, superintendent. "We are going to add a lot more classrooms, renovate a lot of classrooms, .... We are looking at expanding the space used for athletic programs. We only have one gymnasium right now for all of our students. We are going to get rid of the portable buildings. Of course, none of this is going to happen overnight, and none of it will happen if this SPLOST does not pass."

Without the SPLOST, Hagler said he will have a hard time meeting the class size requirements mandated by Gov. Roy Barnes, among other things.

"We have done a lot, but we still have some things that need to be done," Hagler said. "We need to put additional money into upgrading technology, finish roofs and ceilings and parking lots ..."

Hagler said the referendum on March 19 is important.

"If we are to continue what's happening in education here in the future, then we need to pass the upcoming SPLOST," Hagler said. "We have to have facilities in which quality instruction can take place. If this SPLOST passes, I think five years from now this area will have the best facilities in the state. We will have provided great opportunities for the children of Lowndes County."

The original SPLOST passed in June 1997 with an estimated $89,000,000 to be collected. Divided among the two systems by the number of students enrolled at the time, the county school system was scheduled to receive about $47,000,000, and

the city school system was to receive approximately $42,000,000.

Under the 1997 SPLOST, the city school system renovated the gymnasium and the flooring at Lomax-Pinevale Elementary School, built a new Sallas-Mahone Elementary School, added six new classrooms to W.G. Nunn Elementary School, added seven new classrooms to Southeast Elementary School, purchased two new school buses and began construction of the new Valdosta Middle School, in addition to several other things.

The county system also completed several projects of its own, including Dewar Elementary School, renovating Pine Grove Elementary School and Westside School, repairing the septic system at Lowndes Middle School, new roofs at Lake Park Elementary School, and adding new instructional technology system-wide.

Allen said this SPLOST will be divided the same way, and every dollar will be used to renovate, modify, relocate and better equip the schools in this area.

"SPLOST is a winning proposition for everyone in the community," said Jeff Sikes, Valdosta Board of Education member. "Those who speak out against SPLOST don't understand the concept. They see it as an additional tax as opposed to an investment back into the community, especially when statistics show that 60 percent of SPLOST funds come from people who don't live in this area. The people who are arguing against this are arguing against a better education for our children, and that's a losing argument."

On March 19, when Lowndes County voters go to the polls to cast their vote, they will each have to ask themselves whether or not a 1 percent sales and use tax shall be imposed in Lowndes County for the next five years in order to raise a maximum $112,076,119, $63,435,083 of which shall be received by the Lowndes County School System and $48,641,036 of which shall be received by the Valdosta City School System.

To contact reporter Jessica Pope, please call 244-3400, ext. 255.

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