South Carolina state senators pulled off an astonishing last-minute rescue of a legislative bill a week ago.
The measure gives the Aiken County Board of Education the chance to ask voters next fall to support a sales tax increase. That would generate significant revenue for new construction, making it possible to use existing funds for other facility needs. Property owners would see a reduced tax millage as well.
This prospective sales tax increase symbolizes what Aiken County needs for the long-term.
Have School Board members and District administrators made gains on K-12 education? Have they made mistakes in their efforts? Of course. At the same time, they and their teachers face challenges unique to other professions.
Educational expectations have mushroomed at a time when about half the students qualify for free and reduced lunch fees.
Many of them come from troubled homes. Also, hundreds of special needs children require needed services. The S.C. General Assembly doesn’t fully fund public schools, based on its own formula.
Efforts to meet the challenges of children cannot be ignored. Indeed, the Aiken County school system, some businesses, business organizations and nonprofits are beginning to pursue more collaborative initiatives.
School facilities cannot be overlooked. Older buildings remain visible in Aiken County, and business interests see improvements as an economic issue.
Years ago, Aiken restored a wilting downtown into a more attractive and productive area. The City also has renovated neighborhoods through programs still underway.
Aiken High School is 60 years old and long past its time. Even the “new” South Aiken High School opened 34 years ago and has had extensive repair needs. Without more revenue, Aiken High would take another 30 years to rebuild. So would the landlocked North Augusta High School, which needs more modern structures that can overcome its small campus.
Revenue from a sales tax increase would allow full construction of Aiken High and North Augusta High to be completed in about 10 years. Again, other existing sources of revenue could be used for other important facility projects.
Even though property taxes in Aiken County are lower than taxes in other large counties, the prospect of voters supporting that approach is negligible. The sales tax is not ideal, as it impacts low-income people far more than those more affluent. Still, it’s the best bet to take steps that are in the county’s financial interests and are simply the right thing to do.
This effort would not end the facility needs of the School District, but it would make a significant difference for the better.
And again, it would give Aiken County residents the chance to actually see for themselves what a penny can provide for the district.