FULTON COUNTY— The additional penny tacked onto every purchase in Fulton County over the past 22 years has finally made the county’s school system debt free.
During the January work session of the Fulton Board of Education, district officials announced the $135.2 million bond taken out by the system in 1998 was retired Jan. 1.
“This is our final outstanding general obligation bond backed by the Fulton Schools property tax digest,” Chief Financial Officer Marvin Dereef said.
He presented each school board member with a framed copy of the “paid in full” notice, surrounded in pennies. Fulton is now among the few districts in Georgia that are debt-free, Dereef noted.
The bond debt was paid down through proceeds from the one-cent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) first approved by voters in 1997. SPLOST funds were also used to build and renovate schools, upgrade technology and purchase new equipment.
Prior to the state Legislature approving an education SPLOST in 1996, Georgia school boards had limited options to fund long-range plans for construction and renovations.
Boards could raise the millage rate, reduce expenditures by cutting programs or personnel, or ask voters to approve a special bond referendum as a long-term loan.
Since 1998 SPLOST has become Fulton Schools’ primary funding source for new school construction and other capital improvements.
Fulton School Board president Julia Bernath praised county voters for approving the SPLOST each time it came up for renewal. The steady stream of funding allowed the district to “pay as you go,” Bernath said, saving millions in interest payments.
Fulton Schools is nearing the end of SPLOST 5 and preparing plans for the next five-year capital program beginning in 2022.
The next SPLOST, however, will not include debt repayment.
“In each five-year SPLOST, funds were earmarked to pay off debt so that Fulton County property owners did not face an additional burden through their school taxes,” Bernath said.
By embedding the payments on the bond in the SPLOST, Fulton Schools was able to keep the millage rate the lowest in Metro Atlanta for more than a decade.
Dereef noted SPLOST proceeds are generated by taxpayers both inside — and outside — Fulton County.
“Every time someone spends money in Fulton County — whether by shopping, buying gas or eating at a restaurant — one penny of every dollar goes toward the future of our students,” Dereef said. “Those pennies add up, and today they represent millions of dollars.”