Prompted by long-term fiscal concerns for the Cobb County School District, a new citizens group is making a passionate plea for more parental advocacy for public education funding.
With a little more than a month before the March 19 Cobb Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum, the FACE It Cobb organization held an informational meeting Monday night at East Cobb's Dodgen Middle School.
The estimated 200 attendees -- including administrators and staff at East Cobb-area schools -- were given a grim financial picture for Cobb, which has the second-largest school district in Georgia with more than 107,000 students.
The SPLOST referendum, if approved by voters, would fund $717 million in construction and maintenance projects from 2014-2018.
At the same time, the Cobb school district faces a projected $80 million deficit for fiscal year 2014.
State austerity cuts equalling last year's $72 million denial to Cobb schools also are anticipated, and could be greater.
If the SPLOST is rejected, Cobb residents may face a property tax hike or a bond issue that school district officials say would cost more than a sales tax and put the district into debt.
The acronym in FACE It Cobb stands for Funding Awareness Campaign for Education, and its information sheet spelled out points that pro-SPLOST forces and school officials have been making for several months.
FACE It Cobb, which formed last September, doesn't explicitly endorse the SPLOST referendum. But it claims as its mission "a grass roots call to preserve the premier quality and prestige of our nationally ranked Cobb County public schools and public school funding for all of Georgia."
"We wanted to try to get everyone aware of this," said Dodgen School Council member David Schwartz, a FACE It Cobb organizer. "We need to get on the same page of the same hymnal on this. This affects not just the quality of education but businesses coming to Cobb; it affects property values."
The referendum is opposed by the Cobb County Taxpayers Association, which contends many of the projects aren't needed.
The main concerns expressed at Monday's meeting included increasing class sizes, the lack of pay raises for teachers and inadequate facilities at aging schools that include trailers.
Amy Carroll, PTA co-president at East Side Elementary School in East Cobb, said the reconstructed facility that opened last year with current SPLOST funds has caused fewer teaching disruptions than when the school operated with many trailers, especially in inclement weather.
"When you're in one building, it's a much smoother school day," she said. "I will always vote for an Ed-SPLOST based on how we have benefitted from it at East Side."
The Dodgen forum included a SPLOST video presentation produced by the Cobb school district communications staff explaining what previous and current sales tax money has been paying for.
In addition to school construction, renovations and maintenance work, the video showed how SPLOST funding has been used to upgrade electronic security systems at elementary schools, a topic that has drawn increased attention since the deadly school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
East Cobb resident Karen Hallacy, the legislative chairwoman for the Georgia PTA, offered tips to parents on how to contact and lobby legislators for more state education funding.
"One phone call will register, but if a legislator gets five phone calls, they equate that to 300-400 constituents," she said. "In 30 seconds you've really delivered a message that will be heard."
Cobb Board of Education member Scott Sweeney, who represents East Cobb, said other spending matters at the state and federal levels, including unemployment insurance reimbursement, Medicaid and sequestration, could have an even grimmer impact on the money Cobb schools receive.
And there's a nearby local example in DeKalb County, where a school board struggling to govern has parted ways with its superintendent and has spent all of its reserve funds.
"That's potentially the future of Cobb County," Sweeney said of DeKalb's finances. "That's how dire this is."
Schwartz said that regardless of the SPLOST referendum results, FACE It Cobb's work has just begun.
"This is not going to go away," he said. "It's going to go on after my children are out of the schools, it could go on for longer than 10 years. If the voters say no, that doesn't change what we have to do."