CHATSWORTH — Though Murray County Schools' current Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) doesn't expire until June 30, 2022, system officials are proactively looking ahead and planning the next ESPLOST.
"You're doing the right thing," Citigroup's Bryce Holcomb told school board members during a work session earlier this month. "You all are doing what almost all school boards — unless they are not watching the ball — that I work with do."
Murray County Schools plans to ask voters to approve a five-year ESPLOST with a maximum collection of $25.5 million on March 16, 2021. That ESPLOST would begin as soon as the current one lapses in the summer of 2022, so there would be no gap in collections.
"The goal is not to reach the max amount" set in an ESPLOST, Holcomb said. "We by no means expect to really hit that ($25.5 million), but if you hit the max, you can no longer levy the tax."
The current ESPLOST, which voters approved in early 2016 to start July 1, 2017, to run for five years, set a max of $24 million. The current ESPLOST was crucial in building a new Spring Place Elementary School — the former building dated to 1968 — and in remodeling Gladden Middle School, which is more than 50 years old.
A SPLOST is a 1% sales tax levied by a county for capital projects, and school systems use their version, referred to as an ESPLOST, to finance work like renovating current schools and building new ones.
For Murray County Schools, ESPLOST money has been absolutely critical to several capital projects, said Superintendent Steve Loughridge.
"It's the only way we can do anything," he said.
One project that has been discussed is renovating Murray County High School.
School systems can also borrow money during an ESPLOST, and Murray County Schools has done so routinely since its first ESPLOST was approved in 1997, Holcomb said. It would make sense for the system to borrow now and in the near future, as interest rates are low, so the system could do projects sooner while avoiding always-rising construction costs, and students, staff and families could enjoy new or renovated facilities sooner.
Murray County Schools was one of the first systems in the state to vote on an ESPLOST, in March of 1997, after a statewide referendum made SPLOST available to school systems late in 1996, said Holcomb, who has assisted Murray County Schools since its initial ESPLOST. If an ESPLOST fails, school systems must wait a year before presenting another one, which is why Murray County Schools will bring this ESPLOST referendum to voters next March.
If it doesn't succeed, they can try again in March 2022, and if that one were to pass, they wouldn't have a gap in collections when the current ESPLOST concludes at the end of June 2022, Holcomb said. Plus, knowing another ESPLOST has already been approved helps school boards with future planning, as "then you can plan (projects)."
Because 2021 is "an off (election) year," Murray County Schools will have to pay for the ESPLOST referendum — likely about $10,000 — but that money can come from ESPLOST, Loughridge said. Murray County Schools' current ESPLOST had collected roughly $14.8 million as of Oct. 20.