The Gwinnett County school system will soon claim ownership of the imposing Suwanee building that serves as its headquarters — again.
The school board voted Thursday night to pay $52,038,916 to regain title to the sprawling headquarters that sits atop a hill in a Suwanee office park.
The district bought the property in 2004 for $12.5 million —- nearly double what the former owners had paid one year earlier. The district then sold the land a year later to private investors for $17 million.
The investment group converted the former manufacturing plant into a headquarters for the school system and has been leasing it to the system since then. To date, the lease agreement — which district officials say was a smart move at the time — has cost taxpayers $300,000 a month or $26 million total, based on school system records.
The unusual sale and lease-buyback agreement — ultimately costing taxpayers about $73 million — were among a series of school land deals scrutinized by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2011. Among the newspaper’s findings was that the lease arrangement cost Gwinnett taxpayers about $34 million more than if the school district had simply held onto the building in 2005 and paid for the renovations with cash on hand.
District officials defended the decision in 2011 and said again Thursday they still believe it made good sense.
By selling the property and leasing it back, the district was able to free up enough money to build two schools and part of another at a time when the school district was experiencing rapid enrollment growth and in dire need of more classrooms, said Sloan Roach, school system spokeswoman.
“As with any financing transaction, there is always a ‘cost of borrowing, ’ ” Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks told the AJC in an email in 2011.
A real estate firm from New York fronted most of the money for the lease-purchase, but one of the local investors is a familiar name: Keith Mason, who was chief of staff for then-Gov. Zell Miller in the 1990s and the son of Gwinnett real estate investor Wayne Mason.
Renovated by late 2006, the district headquarters, named the Instructional Support Center, is impressive, with a spacious reception area, high ceilings and a custom-built school board meeting room that can hold more than 600 people. Critics have dubbed it Gwinnett’s “Mount Olympus,” referring to the mythological home of Zeus, Apollo and other Greek gods.
In addition to approving the purchase of the school headquarters, the school board also voted to increase the taxes that homeowners pay to cover the district’s debt service and general operations. The increase to 21.85 mills — from 20.55 mills — will mean an additional $101.80 in property tax on a $200,000 house and $75.80 extra on a $150,000 house.
More than half of the additional money that’s raised from the tax increase will go to cover $47 million in principal and interest that the school system will owe in fiscal 2014 on long-term debt it has been carrying since 2008 or earlier, said Rick Cost, chief financial officer.
The current tax rate for debt service had been bringing in $40 million a year since 2009. But because of the fall in property values, it only raised $31 million in 2013, Cost said.
In the fiscal year that starts July 1, the school district also plans to eliminate unpaid furlough days for teachers and other employees and to hire 18 extra school resource officers, or police officers.