COLUMBIA — There’s a growing chance Aiken County voters will decide this November whether to raise the sales tax and grant themselves some property-tax relief.
The proposal, if voters approve it, could raise $16 million to $20 million annually for new construction and facility upgrades for the Aiken County Public Schools District. About one-third of the revenue would come from out-of-state shoppers and visitors.
But first, state law must be changed to make Aiken and several other counties eligible to even ask voters.
On Thursday, the South Carolina House gave key approval to legislation by Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, that would allow Aiken County Public Schools and other school districts – if they choose – to put forward a ballot referendum for a sale tax to be spent on improving school facilities. Part of the legislation requires that at least 10 percent of the proceeds be used to provide property tax relief, a point Young emphasized in an interview Thursday.
While the legislature works the bill toward passage, local community leaders are getting in position to spread their message. Freddie Grimm, chairman of North Augusta High School’s School Improvement Council, is part of the grassroots campaign to show the community that the schools desperately need the funding.
Grimm warned against letting local school buildings fall further behind other school districts’ facilities.
“When we’re short-sighted and not investing in basic infrastructure, we’re missing the opportunity to have a better future for ourselves,” he said. “The people who will be taking care of us in nursing homes, building roads, police officers – why would we not want those folks to be the most highly educated and the best that they can be?”
On Thursday, the House approved the bill, 94-2, but had not yet given its third ceremonial reading. The bill cleared the Senate in March by a vote of 35-9. Still, nothing is for certain in the bill’s final stages in the last two weeks left in the legislative year.
If it passes, school funding could hit the wall again if voters reject it in November. Regardless, the school district must make do.
Tray Traxler, district comptroller, said the district will be issuing bonds within the 8-percent constitutional debt limit, as it does every year, in order to pay for the projects in its five-year facilities plan. The district issued $17.5 million in bonds in 2013-14 and will do the same in the upcoming year.
The money must be stretched across several projects instead of concentrated on completing a single one.
Traxler said if a 1-percent sales tax isn’t enacted, the projects would probably be addressed in phases over 10-15 years or longer by relying on the 8-percent money. In past years, proceeds have been used for cyclic maintenance such as HVAC and roofing projects and for some school renovations.
However, if new sales-tax revenue is available to them, the timeline would be shortened for large-scale projects such as Aiken High and North Augusta High additions and renovations.
As far as making sure the schools are in good working order for each new generation of students, Traxler compared it to a snowball going down a hill.
“No matter how well the district manages the 8-percent money for facilities – and I believe that we’ve managed the limited resources well – our facilities needs and the costs to address those needs will likely continue to grow,” he said. “The district will not be gaining ground on addressing needs with 8- percent money alone.”
School leaders have gone for one bond referendum in the last 10 to15 years. But voters weren’t convinced of the need for a property tax hike and rejected the $236 million ballot question in 2010.
Grimm said they have learned from the defeat and plan to communicate more clearly what the money would pay for and why it’s needed. He pointed to “revolting” student restrooms, including stalls with no doors, outdated science labs, and an overall state of “degraded material conditions.”
“I know what can come out of the public schools,” said Grimm. “We can produce future leaders, but we also need people every single day of the week doing a variety of jobs that make our communities great places to live and give us a quality of life that we all expect and want and deserve.”