With a legislative bill now a reality, Aiken County Board of Education members will soon formally seek a one-cent sales tax increase from voters in November. The next step is encouraging voters to agree to the referendum.
More immediately, School Board members must work on the logistics of such a referendum. By Aug. 15, they must provide to the Aiken County Elections office the ballot information – the question for voters and the specifics of where the revenue will go.
Estimates suggest that revenue from such a tax would generate up to $15 million – specifically for new school construction. However, 10 percent of the total revenue would be used annually to reduce property taxes for an as of yet undetermined period.
“We have to convince people of the need,” said Board member Richard Hazen. “While our school population has not grown, we have overcrowding. Kennedy Middle School was built for 600 students, but now has 951. We still have construction that needs to be addressed.”
There was a loss of confidence in the Board following the last referendum, Hazen said. However, its members and administrators have worked hard to manage funds well, he said, increasing the District's bond rating from A to AA.
If the referendum is successful, the School District will rebuild Aiken High and North Augusta High within a decade – roughly one-third of the time needed with the additional funds. That initiative would free up money in the District's maintenance and construction budget to accelerate other facility projects.
The effort to build new schools should be regarded as an economic tool, said Hazen.
David Jameson, the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, agreed. For about six years, Jameson said, the Chamber has recognized that Aiken County was not spending additional funds on school facilities – unlike neighboring Columbia and Lexington counties.
“This is an important opportunity to ask the people to approve a one-cent sales tax increase,” Jameson said. “It's essential to get more people involved.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001.