Aiken County Board of Education members made their case, Aiken County Tea Party members appreciated it, and both groups agree this will be the start of a process over the next few months.

Tea Party officials invited School Board member Keith Liner to discuss the School Board’s decision to ask Aiken County voters to approve a one-cent sales tax increase in November – seeking new revenue for facility needs.

After Liner’s presentation, Tea Party members offered questions and some skepticism, as well; but many said the meeting was worthwhile.

“This is a good opportunity,” Tea Party officer Dr. Mike Vasovski said. “We had prepared questions, based on the information we gleaned from previously Board meetings. We’re going back to the School Board and lobby our ideas further.”

The School District has run out of options to have sufficient funds for new construction and general maintenance in a county with half the schools 40 to 60 years old, Liner said.

If the sales tax referendum is approved by voters and allows the Board to borrow the funds, the District could get $16 million to $21 million annually for up to 10 years.

However, 10 percent of that revenue would be used to lower property taxes for property owners.

“About one-third of the revenue will be generated by non-Aiken County residents,” Liner said. “We’re losing ground when we put off the work, and we need to do this to address the needs up front.”

The economy stinks, said Tea Party member Terry Sullivan.

“It’s not a good time for us to go out and borrow the money,” she said. “I’d like to see our schools better, but you need to be fiscally responsible. If you do get the sales tax, don’t borrow it. Pay as you go.”

Recently, District administrators and Board members described their concerns with that process. By borrowing the funds up front, they would have more control over a schedule of school needs.

Through annual bond issues for a five-year facility plan, the District receives about $17.5 million for both new construction and general maintenance, Liner said. That isn’t enough at a time when the Board has reduced the amount of that revenue source for maintenance, he said.

“Sometime between now and November, come see our schools,.” Liner said. “We want you to see them and see what we’re up against.”

Everybody at the meeting wants Aiken County to have a good public education program, said Tea Party member Jet Beckum.

“The problem I see is spending all this money for buildings,” he said. “Will that help us have better education? I’m not so sure.”

At every School Board meeting, its members focus on instruction and are proud of student achievement, Liner said. However, the District is not adding any new buildings, other than building a replacement for the 90-year-old Leavelle McCampbell Middle School, he said.

“Renovating schools will cut down on maintenance costs,” he said. “We can’t just keep doing that.”

Tea Party President Mike Stake said the county organization agrees with much of the national Tea Party, but has no affiliation with that program. The Aiken Tea Party focuses on local issues, he said.

“This is a process we need to educate the entire community,” Stake said. “If we can help facilitate that from the Aiken County Tea Party standpoint, you can bet we’ll get all the information out to the public, so we can make an intelligent decision.”

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.