Aiken High School's science building, completed just last year, has changed the landscape for those driving by the school on Rutland Drive and certainly for the students who attend the school.
Aiken County School administrators would like to see the rest of the high school campus match that building and the advantages it offers over the aging facilities that surround it.
An artist's rendition – presented by School District Superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt and Deputy Superintendent David Caver – depicts a future with an almost entirely rebuilt school. The bulk of the remaining buildings on the campus were constructed in 1953.
The administrators discussed the one percent sales tax proposal that community residents will be asked to vote on in November during a Monday media conference at the District's central office.
Along with other top administrators, Everitt and Caver will soon begin such presentations for people throughout the county – all of them strictly informational, Everitt said.
District personnel and School Board members cannot advocate in favor of a one percent sales tax increase or use any public funds to do so, Everitt said.
With the District's existing budget for new construction and maintenance, a project like the new Aiken High would take 20 to 30 years, Caver said.
However, that project, and others in the District, could be completed in about 10 years – based on the outcome of the one percent sales tax vote in November.
Voter approval would add one cent per dollar in sales taxes on certain purchases, with the major exemption being grocery items intended for consumption at home.
Currently, the School District can spend no more than eight percent of Aiken County's assessed property value for facilities, except with the approval of the voters.
“The Education Sales and Use Tax bill from the state legislature has given us the right to ask for a (one percent) sales tax,” Everitt said.
School officials project that revenue from a one percent sales tax increase would raise $125 million over 10 years for the new construction. The District also would be required by the S.C. General Assembly to use 10 percent of the total revenue to reduce property taxes. District Comptroller Tray Traxler projected that would save up to $12 per $100,000 of personal property and up to $18 for business tax relief.
The referendum also includes the rebuilding of North Augusta High School and the construction of a new Leavelle McCampbell Middle School. The Ridge Spring-Monetta High School campus would become a new K-12 facility. Additions to the Aiken County Career and Technology Center would be constructed, as well.
The high schools and the middle school “have outlived their usefulness,” Caver said. “If the (referendum) doesn't pass, we'll be strapped with the same buildings and the same needs. They will still need maintenance, and those costs are increasing.”
The referendum will have two separate questions on the ballot. The more significant question calls outright for approval of the one percent sales tax increase.
The other question, if approved, would allow the School District to issue bonds in anticipation of the projected revenue up front and speed the projects along. Without approval of the second question, the District would proceed with a “pay as you go” method, allowing the District to only pay for construction with available funds in any given year.
In 2010, the School Board asked voters to support a property tax referendum – an effort that failed by a wide margin. A formal movement emerged during that process in which opponents fought and soundly defeated the $236 million bond referendum the Board sought that would have raised property taxes. Thus far, no group has publicly opposed the slimmed-down 2014 initiative, which would bring in approximately $125 million in revenue through a one percent sales tax proposal, slated for the November ballot.
The School District is now providing dates and locations of community meetings on its website at acps.schoolfusion.us. The site also offers extensive question and answer opportunities – ranging from questions about how the reduction in property tax rates will work, how sales tax funds can be used and the assurances that the District will be required by law to use the tax revenue as intended.
When county residents go to the polls to vote in November, Everitt said she hopes they will have read the ballot questions in advance and can make knowledgeable decisions.
“We are doing our best to inform our citizens,” she 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.
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT This artistís rendition depicts Aiken High School in the future with nearly all buildings replaced. Aiken County School District administrators said that such a project could take 20 to 30 years with current revenue or could be completed in 10 years with additional revenue from a one percent sales tax increase. The School Board will take that proposal to voters in the November general election.×