The Aiken County Board of Education made a huge decision on Tuesday: Rebuilding, in their entirety, two of the School District's most prominent schools over the next decade – or more specifically, the possibility of such an initiative.
In conjunction with a sales tax referendum that may or may not materialize, the School Board has agreed to fully replace Aiken High School and North Augusta High School during that 10-year period.
It would come at a combined cost of about $125 million – almost all of it from the revenue that would be generated for at least 10 years by a one-cent sales tax increase.
That increase would raise the current sales tax from 7 cents to 8 cents; but the School Board's plans won't work if the S.C. General Assembly doesn't authorizes the Board's ability to call for the referendum.
Currently, the School District's only source of revenue for facilities and maintenance is through its “8 percent” money. That's the debt limitation based on the assessed value of all taxable property.
The “8 percent” money can and has been used as another term for five-year plan money.
The School District had a long list of facility needs in mind when a property tax referendum was rejected by voters.
“These needs haven't gone away, year after year, with what we can do with the five-year money,” School Board member Richard Hazen said.
The District needs to address its needs, and by speeding up the construction of Aiken High and North Augusta High through the one-cent sales tax, the Board can release five-year debt service funds for other facility needs, he said.
“We have aging facilities, and it is a problem,” said Hazen. “Without something being done via the penny, we could never be ready to fix those schools.”
The District has allocated more than $11 million each for a newly-dedicated wing at Aiken High and for a wing at North Augusta High under construction, said Deputy Superintendent David Caver on Wednesday.
“From my perspective of what we need or what we can recommend, these were the projects that we had gotten started,” he said.
The District also plans to accelerate the completion of Ridge Spring-Monetta High School in just three years. The 8 percent facilities money would pay for that project.
At the School Board meeting on Tuesday, Board members acknowledged that some community residents may not fully understand the distinction between a sales tax referendum and a property tax referendum.
The penny sales tax would have no impact on property tax rates and, based on a final measure in the state legislature, property owners and businesses could see lower school taxes.
While many rural schools wouldn't directly benefit from a successful sales tax vote, the penny increase would allow projects at other facilities to finish much earlier, said Board Vice Chairman Levi Green.
“We really have to have a way of finishing these projects much faster,” he said.
School Board member Tad Barber opposed the motion to accept the District's recommendation on the three high schools.
“It's not the projects themselves, but we need to cover our bases,” Barber said. “It's really only two schools, and I want to make sure about our other needs. Could we get more money for maintenance? If this is a 10-year process, we could backlog our maintenance.”
Caver sees a potentially positive impact from a successful referendum.
Byrd Elementary School in Graniteville was built five years ago and has needed no cyclic maintenance.
“These (three) schools won't be on cyclic maintenance,” Caver said. However, he confirmed that the District will need to use some of its 8 percent funds through some of the construction process.
That includes the construction of an already-scheduled Leavelle McCampbell Middle School.
“There's no other way to do it,” Caver said.
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001.