Plans for a March referendum to continue the ESPLOST in Jackson County's three school districts got put on hold Dec. 2 when the county's board of elections refused to call for the March voting.
The Jackson County Board of Elections voted 4-1, with board member James White dissenting, to table action until January on calling for the referendum.
Board of election actions to call for a vote is generally routine and not controversial. It is the first time the board has ever not approved a call for an election when asked by a local government to do so.
The move leaves leaders in the county's three school districts hanging, uncertain about what will happen next.
The voting for a joint school referendum is complex in the county since there are three independent school systems. The ESPLOST vote has to be held in each district and has to pass in each of the three districts. It means, in part, that both the City of Jefferson and City of Commerce have to hold elections in coordination with the county.
The elections board tabled action on calling for the vote due to what it said was a technical issue with the document and because the board only received a copy of the referendum just before its 8:30 a.m. board meeting.
The Jackson County Board of Education held a called meeting earlier that morning at 7 a.m. to call for the SPLOST referendum. Both the Jefferson City BOE and Commerce City BOE are expected to make their votes later this month at their regular board meetings.
While the elections board delayed action on calling for the March voting, it only did so after Republican board member Larry Ewing voiced opposition to the matter, saying the vote should have been held with November's General Election.
"They want their own special election and I need to understand that," he said.
Elections board chairman Eric Crawford suggested that the March special election call is a strategic move by the school systems to help get the measure passed.
"If I were a school board and I wanted something passed, I'd make sure there was an election with a very low turnout where my people who want it come to the polls," Crawford said.
Ewing also complained about the cost of the county having to hold a special election when it could have been done with an existing vote process.
"They don't care what it cost to run an election," he said.
He also complained about the SPLOST idea in general.
"We've closed down three or four schools and we want more money to build more," he said. "We want our own special election to do that. I have a problem with that, a serious problem."
Jackson County School System superintendent April Howard said the SPLOST funds are needed to help pay for infrastructure in the growing school system.
"SPLOST is the primary revenue source for the construction of new schools and debt service," she said. "Without SPLOST, any new facilities, additions, and improvements become the burden of the local property owners through property tax collections."
Both the county and Jefferson school systems have pressing needs for new schools and expansions due to population growth. Both systems have held meetings recently to begin the process of those projects.
NOVEMBER VOTING CERTIFIED
In other business, the elections board voted 4-1 to certify the county's Nov. 3 elections results.
Board member Jeff Hughes, a Republican representative on the board was the lone dissenting vote.
During a discussion preceding the vote, Hughes asked a number of questions about the elections process and how signatures are matched to absentee ballots.
Nationally, some Republicans have alleged fraud in the election after President Donald Trump was defeated.
Trump carried Jackson County with around 79% of the vote.
Hughes didn't criticize the county elections process and praised local elections officials for their work.
He didn't give a reason for not voting to certify the county's election results, something that is typically a routine matter.
In other business, county elections manager Jennifer Logan gave an update about the plans for the upcoming Jan. 5 runoff for two U.S. Senate seats and a PSC seat in the state. She said her office had received a number of absentee ballot requests so far.
Logan also said her office is working on a backup plan for Jan. 5 in case an ice storm or other bad weather makes opening polls difficult.