Diana Floyd has two sons who graduated from Aiken High School and a daughter enrolling as a freshman this month.
“I love the school, and it provided a good education for my sons,” she said. “But I also believe in mud puddle management. There should not be mud puddles in schools.”
That's a big reason Floyd is heading efforts to form a grassroots advocacy group called “1 Cent Makes Sense.” The intent is to support a one-cent sales tax increase in the November general election. With about 20 schools 40 to 60 years old, the Aiken County Board of Education is seeking voter approval for the penny increase as a source of revenue to address facility needs at these older schools.
Floyd hosted a meeting on Wednesday and plans to set up informational meetings for the public in early September. Through her invitation, School Board members Rosemary English, Tad Barber and Richard Hazen attended the meeting to answer questions.
Floyd cited the issues that sharply limit the School Board's ability to renovate or rebuild aging schools. The sales referendum would generate about $125 million for the District over 10 years – providing funds that could accelerate major projects at five schools.
“South Carolina has one of the most complicated funding systems in the state,” Floyd said. “Sixty percent of the operational funds for the School District come from the state and federal government. We have no control over it.”
The other 40 percent for operations comes from business and personal property taxes, except those exempted for primary homeowners. Yet state government pays nothing to school districts for facilities. The Aiken District generates about $17.5 million each year for all construction and maintenance through annual bond issues. But the bond capacity by law is lifted to eight percent of the county's tax base. Much of that revenue is used for general maintenance, roofs and HVAC.
Many schools have technology limitations and safety concerns in open areas, Floyd said. One participant added that the most apparent problems are the ongoing issues of leaking roofs and toilets that don't flush. Some schools have mold that is only cleared up until the next rainy day.
Businessman Tom Williams urged people to visit the older schools and see their needs. He lived years ago in New Jersey, and the taxes in Aiken County are a fraction of those in that state.
“Our federal taxes are outrageous, too,” Williams said. “This one-cent sales tax will have an impact. It's a reasonable way for Aiken to compete with Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach.”
Missy Byrne has two children at Aiken High and another who graduated from the school. She realizes her children won't benefit from a successful one-cent sales tax increase, but many others will.
“The key is how you communicate, to try to understand where the issues match to what the needs are,” Byrne said. “We absolutely have to talk about (community) concerns, that this is not going to be about property taxes.”
Will Williams, the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership's executive director, said housing fell dramatically during the 2008 recession. Although some measures of recovery have emerged, housing permits have been low – a reflection of limited growth, Williams said.
Over the past five years, real estate professionals said that 4,500 families have left Aiken County to live in Lexington and Evans. While the schools are good academically, said Williams, their conditions are a long-term problem.
The community is aggressive in trying to grow with more industry, but there is a reluctance “to show the schools,” said Williams. “I know that what goes on inside the schools is good, but a book is judged by its cover.”
The new advocacy group also must stress to voters that the one-cent sales tax increase is not limited to school construction, Floyd said. Each year, 10 percent of the School District's debt service taxes will be reduced.
“We're the only county in the state with that requirement,” Floyd said.
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.