I count it my good fortune to have made Aiken County my home. When I came to work at the University of South Carolina Aiken in 1988, I not only found meaningful work at a university I love, but I found a community that I quickly came to love as well.
There is no doubt about it. Aiken is a special place. One of the things I have always admired about this community is the way people come together to make our county a better place for all of our residents – from the United Way and a wide array of charitable organizations to our local churches to the Chamber of Commerce. In all of these organizations, you will find folks who give of themselves in an unselfish way not seeking a personal benefit. In today’s world, I’m more convinced than ever that we need to be a community that cares about each other.
As I’ve spent time thinking about the upcoming penny sales tax vote, I’ve thought about this community I love and what we must do to ensure it remains a special place in the future.
I also believe there comes a time when you have to step up and do what is right, and I believe with my whole heart that investing in the next generation is absolutely what is right.
Four years ago, Aiken County voters turned down a bond referendum for our schools, essentially making the statement that this was not the preferred method to fund school facilities.
In the interim, the school board has worked to maintain our facilities – aging buildings that include:
• three-fourths of our schools that are more than 40 years old,
• half of our schools that are more than 50 years old and
• three schools that are more than 65 years old.
In fact, Aiken County’s last significant capital building effort was in 1980 resulting in South Aiken High School, Midland Valley High School and Silver Bluff High School. The age of our school facilities often makes it very difficult to incorporate the use of technology and to take advantage of energy saving measures. So we miss out on several fronts – not being able to fully make use of the tools that can truly prepare our students for the world they will enter after school and not making the best use of our public money with rising energy costs in inefficient facilities – not to mention how costly it is to just maintain these older facilities across the board.
If you really think about it, it’s shocking that an educated and caring community such as Aiken has not made more of an investment in public education.
We now have a new option available to us thanks to the efforts of the Aiken County legislative delegation. While there is no option that will be viewed as “perfect” by everyone when you are using the word “tax,” the penny sales tax seems to me a fair option – an option that will allow much-needed construction projects in our schools to get underway while providing a property tax rollback. It is also a method that was carefully considered since it excludes taxes on groceries, and it is also estimated that up to 30 percent of it will be paid by visitors to our community.
I believe that “place matters.” My husband and I don’t have children, but I am passionate about having public schools where our children feel valued and have the opportunity to receive the very best education. I want our county’s children to have a “place” to receive their education that allows them to feel a sense of pride and a desire to reach for their dreams. I also believe “place” matters as we attract young families and corporations and businesses to our community.
Public education – including the infrastructure and facilities to support it – is key to the economic prosperity of our communities and nation. Responsible investment in public school buildings pays three times: once for skilled jobs in local communities; a second time in the quality that healthy, safe and educationally appropriate buildings create for students and their teachers; and finally, a third time in the benefits that quality education will reap for generations to come.
I’ve taken the time to walk the halls of our public schools and to volunteer in one of our oldest school buildings – Leavelle McCampbell Middle School in Graniteville. I’ve seen first-hand the conditions that make it challenging for our young people to learn and thrive.
The time is now. It is way too easy for folks to take an “anti-tax” stance, but it is clearly not what is best for our community’s long-term economic vitality. Investing in public education is one the finest actions we can take as residents of Aiken County.
Deidre Martin is the 2014 chair of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and the Vice Chancellor of Advancement at USC Aiken.