Just a few months ago, Aiken High School dedicated a new science building, providing the opportunity for the Aiken County School District to close up all but two mobile units in the front and rear of the main building.
The facade of the main entrance received an upgrade a few years ago, and the gym was constructed in the mid-1990s. The rest of the campus is 60 years old, including a former elementary school that District officials hope to demolish. That project is likely many years away.
For more than 30 years, Board of Education members and administrators have relied on a five-year plan, scheduling new construction and larger maintenance initiatives over that time frame. The Board upgrades the plan every year. Perhaps more than usual, some projects are being removed from the plan and others are added.
David Caver, the District's deputy superintendent, tends to say that a lot of projects, cited among the District's 40 schools, are off the radar.
“We don't have enough dollars to do some of the things we know need help,” he said. “Most are related to age.”
In the past two years, the five-year plan became more complicated than expected. The Board agreed that at 93 years old, Leavelle McCampbell Middle School must be replaced by a new facility at an estimated cost of $26 million. As a result, others projects will be forced back. Richard Hazen, a Board member since 2008, voted against that decision, objecting to the cost and the postponement of other needs.
“The sad part is it's also coming at the expense of essential maintenance,” Hazen said.
“It's not that I don't support Leavelle, and I don't have an answer. But it's only one pot of money, and we're restricted to what we can do without voter approval.”
A large property tax-based referendum failed in 2010. This year the Board hopes to get a penny sales tax referendum approved, which could generate as much as $20 million annually for a number of years.
That would help the District speed up a number of projects, Caver said. However, the Board legally cannot call for such a sales tax vote – still waiting on the S.C. General Assembly to give the District the ability to call for the referendum. That would give an opportunity to the voters to decide up or down.
For now, Board members and District administrators agree that the five-year plan concept is itself aging. The District had managed to build or renovate new schools during the past two decades.
Within recent years, however, construction costs continue to rise, and old schools are getting older, Caver said. Earlier this year, and with Board approval, he asked an appointed committee of five county residents to study the District's financial situation.
“Our conclusion was that the five-year plan is not sufficient to keep up with maintenance and construction,” one of its members, Geof Fountain told the School Board last month. The group also noted that the Aiken School District's property tax rate is much lower than other large counties – among them five Lexington County districts that have kept up their schools more productively.
The District does have capable maintenance personnel to provide repairs and relatively small facility project upgrades as needed, Caver said. Custodial staffers keep the schools clean. Sonya Colvin, the Greendale principal, reiterated Caver's comments.
“This is a clean space and well-cared for facility,” Colvin said. “It's not that we're broken down. We want to keep our enrollment, but sometimes people judge a book by its cover.”
So what are the needs of other schools? Caver cited a few of them:
• He describes Hammond Hill Elementary School as one of the top schools in the state – meaning academics, not the building. At one time a priority, the school needs to remove nine mobile units and provide some building upgrades. North Augusta Middle School received a single new building, and other phases are needed, Caver said.
• Gloverville Elementary School needs additions, but also has been bumped off the five-year plan. Millbrook Elementary School did get a second wing a few years ago; while the original building is functional, it's not efficient with classrooms accessible from outside the building.
• The Aiken County Career and Technology Center has needs related to unexpected growth – a cost estimated at $10 million four years ago to add a new wing.
The School District has managed to maximize its financial resources, said Will Williams, director of the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership and a community committee member.
“But other districts have been able to build more modern schools,” he said. “It's time for us to look as a community about funding education.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.