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Defending the Walton SPLOST Plans

Parents and others in the school community say every bit of the $40 million price tag is needed to properly upgrade the facility.

(Author's Note: This is the second of two articles on the Walton SPLOST proposal. The first article outlined the lobbying efforts of school parents.)

Walton High School parents pushing for substantial renovations in the March 19 SPLOST IV referendum are aware of the perceptions of their affluent East Cobb community, and the high levels of academic, athletic and extracurricular achievement expected of students.

They also understand that some outsiders may hear their pleas for a new fine arts center, gymnasium and classroom addition for what's proudly dubbed "the shining star" of the Cobb County School District and not feel much sympathy.

First world problems, goes the phrase, even when Walton parents rattle off some of the issues associated with cramming 2,600 students in a facility built for several hundred less than that:

  • Three lunch periods in a small cafeteria, starting at 10:30 a.m.;
  • An original gymnasium that holds 1,600 students, forcing double sessions for assemblies;
  • Enough student parking spaces only for seniors.

For Walton parents who worked to increase the school's SPLOST IV proposal  from $14 million to nearly $40 million, every single penny is necessary to upgrade a 37-year-old school they say has been improved only in piecemeal fashion.

What they don't appreciate are suggestions that their money and political influence are being accommodated to get the referendum passed amid an anti-tax climate in Cobb.

"How much longer does the county think we can hold on?" asked Patti Morgan, vice president of the Walton Facilities Foundation, which has been pushing for an overhaul of the main classroom building and the fine arts center.

"How much longer are families going to want to come here?"

The ultimate magnet school

It's hard for motorists not to know when they're driving around the Walton district. Housing developments, new and established, as well as real estate listings, frequently advertise that fact.

An attorney involved in a series of recent residential rezoning cases in the Walton district, including a major project approved this week, has bluntly pointed out that the demand for new, luxury homes is due in large part to East Cobb's highly-regarded public schools.

With the quality of the academics come expectations of a school facility to match. At a September town hall meeting, one Walton parent said he wouldn't vote for SPLOST if other schools received more full-time equivalency funding.

Cobb school board member Scott Sweeney explained that dollar figures are determined on the physical needs of the school. But that parent's remarks are what critics of the revised Walton plan say are typical of what's being placated. 

In a Monday article, The Marietta Daily Journal quoted an anonymous Cobb "educator" who claimed the $40 million expense isn't necessary to upgrade Walton, calling it an example of "one of those overly-elaborate pork barrel SPLOST projects."

"I believe there are a lot of east Cobb parents with a lot of money and influence who are pushing for a new school for Walton."

Morgan and Vonda Shoemaker, the foundation's president and CEO, who were interviewed by East Cobb Patch before that article was published, insist that they are pressing only for what's needed at Walton.

In working to revise the school's master plan for the last 18 months, they said their main task was to determine the minimum school district standards for the facility, long before the SPLOST IV list was crafted.

"The question has always been, 'What are the county standards in every aspect of the facility?," Shoemaker said.

They found that Walton has 47,000 fewer square feet of space than those standards call for, and that is what they are asking to be addressed now.

Not taking the "bait" argument

At town hall meetings to discuss the SPLOST project list, Sweeney also has defended the larger Walton spending package.

Other major school-specific projects are elsewhere: $30 million to replace Osborne High School and another $30 million to replace East Cobb Middle School, both of which are in poor shape.

"Is it bait?" he asked, somewhat rhetorically, about the Walton plans at meetings last week at Dodgen Middle School and this week at Sope Creek Elementary School.

Sweeney, whose sons attend Walton feeder schools, pointed out that the Osborne school community has nowhere near the same level of parental involvement as Walton.

"That community has not been as vocal about building a new school," he said. "But it's about doing the right thing.

"It's the right thing to do what's being proposed at Walton. And it's the right thing to build a new school at Osborne."

The Walton Facilities Foundation is holding an informational SPLOST meeting on March 4. The referendum is being opposed by the Cobb Taxpayers Association and the Cobb-based Georgia Tea Party, which have fought against the Cobb government SPLOST that barely passed in 2011, as well as last summer's failed T-SPLOST regional transportation referendum.

Morgan and Shoemaker said they've been so busy they haven't contemplated what might happen if the SPLOST referendum fails, and they don't care to dwell on the possibilities.

"It's hard to know," Shoemaker said. "It's hard to fathom."

Added Morgan: "It's not just Walton that would suffer. It would be scary for the whole county."

Mrs. Doyle February 22, 2013 at 01:12 PM
Hmmmmm, dire words coming from the woman who owns a construction firm. "How much longer does the county think we can hold on?" asked Patti Morgan, vice president of the Walton Facilities Foundation, which has been pushing for an overhaul of the main classroom building and the fine arts center. "It's not just Walton that would suffer. It would be scary for the whole county."
Sara Battersby Brown February 22, 2013 at 02:46 PM
If they don't want to appear as elitest snobs then they shouldn't take more than their fair share of SPLOTS dollars. Yes Walton needs replacement but definitely no more than EMCS does.
Phil McCracken February 22, 2013 at 03:38 PM
Here's the problem with the SPLOST. To get it through, all the little piggies have to get fed at the taxpayer trough. I absolutely think there is a problem at Walton. It's overcapacity. Can someone explain to me how this SPLOST fixes that fact? It doesn't. Instead, we spend $30M on a boondoggle "career academy" that should be left to the high schools. I'm also tired of the elitist snob comments. Yes, East Cobb has a lot of money. Get over it. Bottom line is this. The SPLOST should draw from the projects that are real needs. If replacing a middle school is needed because a refurb won't cut it, that's fine. A Fine Arts Center upgrade sounds nice but not as needed as addressing an overcapacity problem. Boo hoo about the gym. Two assemblies! Shock! Horror! We should be looking at the needs in composite across the county - not the "wants or nice to haves" and make sure those are tackled rather than catering to a bunch of special interests that make sure "every child gets a trophy"...er "every school gets a little something." And while we are at it, we need to repeal the law that allows Cobb residents over the age of 62 from paying school property taxes. Sorry, you live here. Don't whine that "you did your bit." When it comes to schools, we're all in this together. Otherwise, we may as well also allow singles and couples without kids to skip out. Why not? They're not "benefitting."
Doug DeBolt February 22, 2013 at 03:45 PM
Consider that Brumby is landlocked and its design is a security nightmare. No funds to get Brumby out of trailers or to improve security, but Walton will enjoy its new fine arts center.
Frank February 22, 2013 at 04:53 PM
The project list calls for two replacement elementary schools - Is it possible that Brumby might be one of those two schools - YES!
Frank February 22, 2013 at 04:55 PM
@ Sara - The project list calls for the replacement of an East Cobb area middle school - doubtful it's Dickerson or Dodgen, leaving East Cobb Middle School as the likely replacement.
No Tax February 22, 2013 at 07:17 PM
And Brumby has been in trailers for the past 14 years.....a school neglected by SPLOST
Wendy Parker (Editor) February 22, 2013 at 07:25 PM
In the early stages of developing this SPLOST list Brumby, Powers Ferry, Sedalia Park and Eastvalley all were brought up in the school board's discussion about replacement elementary schools. The reason no specific school is mentioned is to be flexible in case of attendance zone shifts or other school-specific needs that may be determined, if the referendum passes. Under state law, a SPLOST project that is specified in the project list cannot be changed after the fact.
Doug DeBolt February 22, 2013 at 08:11 PM
Doesn't seem like the shifts or school-specific needs came into play when they ramped up Walton's amount to $40 million. I guess whichever schools get kicked to the curb this time can just add a dozen more trailers. After all, as Mr. Sweeney says, they're in communities that aren't as vocal about school improvements.
Leroy Dairy February 22, 2013 at 09:01 PM
Agree with you Phil, fine arts and gym upgrades don't really entice me to put my hand in my pocket. The first comment is that these two women are only pushing for Walton, yet cry "the whole county would suffer." If Mrs. Morgan's child wasn't in orchestra at Walton's fine arts program and was ensconced in another school, would she be trying as hard to convince us?
Phil McCracken February 22, 2013 at 10:58 PM
I'm perplexed as to why you show pictures of tennis courts and softball fields that 'could be relocated' for more classroom space. What's the point? Nothing in the SPLOST for Walton is about fixing classroom space problems? It's about a gym and a fine arts facility. Here's another thought too. Since the over 62s aren't paying any school tax, maybe they shouldn't have a voice at the voting booth. Instead of no taxation without representation, the phrase for them should be no representation without taxation!
Phil McCracken February 22, 2013 at 11:06 PM
The bigger question is whether these are the right projects. If overcrowding is an issue at a school or we'd like to find a way to get kids out of leaky old trailers, it sure seems like those are more common sense this to do than spending on things that are wasteful and/or limited in who they benefit at a particular school. I stand by my earlier comment. A career academy is unnecessary and could/should be managed at each Cobb high school. Is there a single school that won't get anything out of the SPLOST? Nope. And the reason is that rather than weigh projects on their merits, we spread the love so that everyone will feel like the got something, regardless of whether or not it is the right thing to spend money on.
Heather Rees February 22, 2013 at 11:55 PM
Yes she would. Do you know Mrs. Morgan? These two women have children at Walton so who do you want them to cheer for. It has to start somewhere and them being cheerleaders ultimately helps the whole county who has needs listed in the SPLOST 4 notebook. Also, putting your hand in your pocket, really, this is not a tax increase. It is the same 1% you have been paying - no more. It is also less than the 2% that Fulton county pays.
Heather Rees February 22, 2013 at 11:56 PM
For people who have actually read SPLOST 4 they would understand that the career academy (as in a whole new building) isn't defined. There is flexability for the county to use those dollars for career paths at schools that already have career paths that can be improved.
Phil McCracken February 23, 2013 at 12:21 AM
I wish someone would write me a check for $30M for something "undefined." That is the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard.
Phil McCracken February 23, 2013 at 12:42 AM
@Heather - are you sure YOU read SPLOST IV and what Walton gets? See page 110 here: http://www.cobbk12.org/SPLOST/CobbEd-SPLOSTIVNotebook_20121114.pdf. Those "tennis courts" that the author suggested could be relocated for more class space are going to be resurfaced according to the SPLOST. So glad too that Concession Stand refurbishments and Stadium Improvements are seen as more necessary than sorting out potential elementary or middle school needs. Nothing in the SPLOST fixes Walton's overcapacity problem. Face it. The two women in here are championing pet projects of theirs that should be further down the list of fixes Walton needs. And all we're doing here is arguing about Walton's problems. That's the problem with SPLOSTs in general. Yes, there are a LOT of good things in the proposal. Unfortunately though, there is a lot of waste, and that's what has so many people considering a No vote. Projects like replacing the temporary annex building with a new permanent wing at Tritt sounds reasonable (see page 107). A classroom addition at Riverside Primary (see page 92) also makes sense to accommodate more students. The real shame is that the kids and schools that could really use the biggest dollars won't see the investment that they deserve (see Brumby, Powers Ferry...).
Leroy Dairy February 23, 2013 at 01:36 AM
Yes, I do know Mrs. Morgan and acquainted with Mrs. Shoemaker and am a Walton parent. I have read the SPLOST. The article stated, that the women, "insist that they are pressing only for what's needed at Walton." So don't go all rah, rah in a corner saying the overindulgence of a fine arts building, concession stand and resurfaced tennis courts will benefit the greater community. How selfish. If the SPLOST was pared down to what is NEEDED to nourish our children academically, then you would have more people voting yes.
Phil McCracken February 23, 2013 at 02:23 AM
I don't know either woman, and I'm sure they have the best intentions for their push at Walton, but Leroy is dead right. People would vote yes if they saw the itemized list as a real representation of the needs across the county. Forget the mini class warfare that exists as an unspoken undercurrent in those 'darn rich East Cobbers' versus those 'poor, unsupportive west/south Cobbers.' $700+M is a lot of money, and better classroom facilities should be number one on the list for all. I also don't think it is too much for Cobb to tell me where they plan to spend my money. If you can't be specific, take it out. I can't imagine asking the leaders of my company for $30 million but it comes with a caveat that I won't tell them how I'm going to spend it. They'd laugh me out of the room. Maybe a smaller and more specific SPLOST would do better with voters.
Heather Rees February 23, 2013 at 02:51 AM
Phil, I completely understand questioning the $30 million for the career academy but I do believe that as written it could help facilitate (with funds) better career paths for cobb schools that are developing their career path programs now. I admit to being passionate about what SPLOST 4 means for Walton High School. I graduated from Walton in the 80's and have two children who graduated from Walton and my youngest graduates this year. I can tell you that Walton doesn't look very different than it did in the 80's when I attended. As you know, it was built in one year in the late 70's and the speed in which is was "put up" is showing now more than ever. Yes, there have been "bandaids" over the years but none addressing the true problem of fitting over 2600 kids in a space not meant for that many. We don't come close to the Ed Specs from the county. It would be great if large tracts of land in East Cobb were available to build a new high school but that isn't a reality. The reality is that Walton has the opportunity to get a redo from SPLOST 4 that would allow for new multi-story academic building, a new fine arts building and a new competition gymnasium to name some of the things. People seem to be glossing over the magnitude of the rebuild and the academic building specifically. Parking will be increased and traffic flow will be improved. Traffic is horrible at the school and very dangerous. Trying to attend a function for your child at night is frustrating.
Heather Rees February 23, 2013 at 03:01 AM
@sara, sorry for being snarky. I have been a cobb county school supporter for 20 years and very involved in my children's schools. I am friends with many wonderful women whom I met in elementary school days that have gone on to better many east cobb schools including ECMS and have supported them in any way I could. I, like many, anticipate ECMS being the middle school that gets the redo that is spoken about in SPLOST 4. I don't claim to know what any schools "fair share" is. That is up to the school and what they submitted to the county for the notebook and the parents of that school who can rally and support that. I am far from an elitest snob and also feel Walton is in need of this redo. I would be happy to give you a tour of Walton anytime as I feel a lot of people have an opinion of what the inside must be like based on "rich" parents of Walton kids or high academic scores, etc. The financial status of some of the parents does not impact academics or the structure of the school.
Mary Lewis Scott June 08, 2013 at 08:37 AM
It is pretty amazing to me that you all can't see Walton's return on money to all of Cobb county. The home values in the WALTON district bring an enormous value to all the other homes in Cobb county. Just the mention of a NEW WALTON HS is raising property values as we speak. I do NOT live in the Walton district, but very close. I would get off the nickle and dimming of the getting a new Walton HS and get busy doing it. Time is money and you all are waisting time if you can't see the REAL value of Walton HS. This school ROCKS in academics. and its value to all of COBB county is unreal. I would suggest that all the families of COBB county get behind this plan to build a NEW WALTON. I promise you that you will see the return on your home value go up if they build a NEW WALTON HS. I say it everyday, we are all so blessed to live in Cobb county. It is one of the few counties in the country that has a balanced budget and is NOT run by crooks. Cobb county will do what is needed and what is right. But I am just saying that for those who are out there and don't believe that WALTON HS is helping your property value -- you don't know where you live. It does and It will for a LONG time to come.

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