School Board seeking sales tax option with legislators’ help

  • Thursday, January 30, 2014

STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT Aiken School Board members say they want to ask county voters to agree to a potential sales tax referendum, for children such as these at Greendale Elementary School. The School District would like to close the aging facility and build an addition to New Ellenton Middle School. Insufficient funding, Board members say, is limiting the long-term construction and maintenance needs of the District.

Aiken County Board of Education members are working hard to give county residents the opportunity next fall to vote in support of a penny sales tax referendum.

A new one-cent sales tax could provide funds for the construction of new schools or for additions to existing schools, they say.

At a meeting with the Aiken County Legislative Delegation earlier this month, School Board Chairman Rosemary English addressed the School District’s needs.

“You know about the conditions of some of our buildings,” she said. “Most of them are 60 years old, and one of them is 90 years old.”

The Board already is getting a huge assist from the Aiken County Legislative Delegation. Existing state law will not allow the School Board to call for a sales tax referendum – therefore, the issue cannot be put on the ballot for voters. With the backing of his colleagues, S.C. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, introduced a bill in the Senate last week that would allow Aiken County to put a referendum on the ballot.

It would change the regulation and pave the way for the Aiken School District and others statewide – they would get the option to put such a referendum up to voters in the November election. If voters chose to approve, the District could raise up to $20 million annually for several years.

Four years ago, the School Board asked voters for $236 million through a construction bond referendum to build or rebuild six schools. The funding would have come through property tax hikes, but voters soundly rejected the referendum by a 70-30 percent margin. However, a one-cent sales tax would not increase or impact property taxes at all.

So what makes this different from the referendums currently allowed in the county?

What about that penny?

A couple of generations back, a kid could buy a penny candy or stick a penny in a vending machine for a pretty big piece of bubble gum. What does a penny get you in the 21st century? Not so much in the terms of daily commerce.

The debate continues: Should the penny be abandoned or should it remain out of sentiment?

In a one-cent referendum, a penny is entirely a different animal. A one-cent sales tax increase could raise up to $20 million annually over several years. School Board members strongly point out the potential benefits to the school system and the community.

With additional funds, they could speed up existing projects for new construction and upgrades to existing schools – speeding up a process that now could take decades.

“The needs are not going away,” School Board Vice Chairman Levi Green told Aiken County legislators earlier this month. “They only will get worse unless we have a referendum.”

Past initiative

In November 2010, the School Board tried a different approach to raise money for its schools – a property tax referendum that would have raised $236 million for far more ambitious projects to build or rebuild six schools. That would have left more money for other construction and maintenance.

The 2010 referendum failed, and Board members and School District officials readily admit they handled the campaign poorly. They believe a sales tax referendum will be much more palatable to voters. They’ll also provide details of what the penny will pay for.

New initiatives

Let’s make it clear: The School Board can’t just order an additional penny to the sales taxes that people pay on products and services every day.

Its members would have to ask voters to formally agree through a sales tax referendum to increase the sales tax by one cent.

Such a referendum concept is already present in the county. In November 2010, Aiken County Council sought and got the support of voters a third time for a capital projects penny tax. Over its life, that tax generates about $140 million for a wide range of road paving, building projects, parks and recreation projects, as well as funding for resurfacing and drainage throughout the county. The new, proposed legislation would allow just the School District to seek a second penny sales tax.

What are the needs?

Currently, the School District annually collects about $17 million in its nonoperating budget, which funds not only new construction, but cyclical maintenance. Deputy Superintendent David Caver said the School District had been fortunate to handle both areas adequately in the past.

“But we’re always robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “We need to be wary of those maintenance needs throughout the District.”

The District coordinates a five-year facility improvement plan that includes new construction and maintenance. But funding limitations and new needs lead to updates every year, leaving schools previously in the loop out of funding for the present. The Board is not abandoning those projects, Board member Keith Liner said.

“We’ve had some hard decisions to make, but we have to be realistic. There’s not enough money,” he said.

What’s next

Again, the county’s legislators said they’re supporting the change in state law, agreeing that the School Board should have the opportunity to ask the public to vote up or down on the penny sales tax.

Young is excited that his bill is already on a fast track, having passed a Senate finance subcommittee on Thursday. He believes the measure could get through the full Senate Finance Committee as early as this week. Young attributes the speed to the interest of other senators who want to give their school boards the same option.

If the bill goes through the General Assembly, the School Board cannot pay for a campaign for a subsequent referendum or directly take part. However, other entities could take that role on behalf of the District.

One thing for sure, Liner said, “We’re going to be smarter with communications. We can present informed decisions and gain in the trust of the voters.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter.

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