Citizens group campaigns in favor of Decatur school construction bond
A group of Decatur residents is raising money and campaigning to get residents to vote for a $75 million general obligation bond on Nov. 3.
The bond would allow the school system to borrow money to pay for school construction, and taxes would likely increase by 8 percent as a result. Decaturish recently conducted an informal poll that showed respondents were divided on the subject of whether to approve the bond. Current student enrollment in City Schools of Decatur is 4,658 students. The school system is projecting 6,527 students by 2020.
Decatur Citizens for Kids has registered with the state Campaign Finance Commission and has created a website – goyesdecatur.org – with information about the bond issue. The involvement of citizens in the bond effort is a crucial to its success. Legally, Decatur School Board members cannot advocate for the approval or defeat of the bond referendum. A 2012 Attorney General’s opinion says that courts have ruled public officials, “may not use their resources to persuade voters to support or oppose a ballot question.”
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Han Choi is a parent with children in the school system and the group’s treasurer. He said he’s seen the overcrowding first hand as families with children have moved onto his street.
“I think there are limitations on school board members as well as school personnel, like the superintendent, campaigning for the G.O. bond issue,” Choi said. “They can talk about information and facts that are available to the public, so they can certainly share information, but to go out and actively campaign for something is prohibited under state law. So we as citizens want to be more on the active forefront of advocating for and pushing for people to vote ‘yes’ on the G.O. bond issue.”
Choi said there are seven committee members of Decatur Citizens for Kids and “a lot of volunteers and supporters.” The group’s website has a list of the names of people who intend to vote yes on Nov. 3.
The website has a lengthy FAQ about the bond issue. One chart argues that taxes will actually be lower, even if the bond passes, due to recent rollbacks of the millage rate by the School Board and Decatur City Commission.
The FAQ tries to address other criticisms of CSD planning and expenditures.
One question asks whether Decatur is running the risk of overbuilding if enrollment doesn’t match projections. The group says CSD’s projections on enrollment have been accurate, within 1.5 percent of projections, over the last seven years. But if they are off completely, CSD has other options, the group says.
“The expanded housing capacity in Decatur – the new development and re-development of property – signals that enrollment growth is not temporary,” the website says. “It’s safe to assume that many new residents are drawn by the high performance of City Schools of Decatur. But should the schools have the capacity to accommodate more students because of an unanticipated future drop in enrollment, CSD could open up slots to tuition-paying families outside the district, as it has done in the past.”
The website says if the bond is not approved, it will likely mean more portable classrooms in CSD’s future.
“Without approval of the bond referendum — i.e., no new classrooms — the number of portable classrooms reaches at least 87 by 2019-2020 and will continue at that level or greater for the foreseeable future,” the website says.
The tax increase implicit in a “yes” vote might deter some from supporting the bond. Decatur residents saw their tax bills increase due to a 20 percent increase in the tax digest. The Decatur City Commission has tried to lessen the pain for seniors by waiving sanitation fees and storm water utility fees for seniors 70 years of age or older. The Decatur School Board is asking the legislature to expand its homestead tax exemption. Currently, residents age 80 and older do not have to pay the school tax. The school board would like to see the age lowered to 65.
The School Board recently lowered the millage rate to 18.66 mills, lower than the recommended 19 mills. Decatur City Commissioners also recently adopted a millage rate of 12 mills, reduced by 1 mill from the present millage rate.
Decaturish asked Choi whether he thought residents would vote “yes” for the bond, even if it means a tax increase.
“I hope so,” he said. “I think there is just a tremendous need and this is something we need to do.”
He said the school system will have to pay to accommodate the growth one way or another, whether it’s by building new schools or by implementing short-term fixes, like more portables.
“I think the bond deal is just the most effective way to do that,” Choi said. “The interest rates are as low as they’ve been.
“I understand that some people will see this as a significant increase. That’s all relative. I can’t speak to everyone’s personal situation, but we have had some mitigating factors like the millage being rolled back. I think we’re looking at potentially getting exemptions for seniors. Hopefully some of that will have a mitigating factor. I think it’s something that we need to do. It’s something we have to pay for and I think the bond issue in the long run will be the better solution.”