(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."