Could penny sales tax rescue dilapidated Aiken Co. schools?

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Monday, Jan. 14, 2012

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- Principal Debra McCord guides a special visitor through the hallways of Oakwood-Windsor Elementary School, which is located east of Aiken.

"It gives us the chance to talk about the great things that are going on within our schools,” she said.

She has plenty of great things to tell State Superintendent Dr. Mick Zais. Even with a poverty level around 92 percent, her school earns an ‘A’ under federal standards. Her building is an older one, but she says it's doing just fine.

"But there are other schools within Aiken County that are as old or older than ours that are in constant need of renovations or repairs,” McCord said.

That includes schools like Leavelle McCampbell Middle School in Graniteville, North Augusta High School and Aiken High School, the final school Zais visited Monday.

"Unless we have another source of revenue for our facilities, it's going to take a long, long time to do what needs to be done at some of our schools,” says School Board Vice Chairman Ray Fleming, who attended two of the visits on Monday.

Fleming, who represents parts of North Augusta, says school money right now is tighter than tight. He says the ‘Five-Year Plan’ to do renovations throughout the district, right now, only receives about $17 million a year.

A good chunk of that goes to maintenance. $4.4 million of that went to maintenance this year. Actually, engineers say $11 million should be spent on cyclic maintenance each year, but that’s impossible for the Aiken County Public School District currently, says Deputy Superintendent David Caver.

Keep in mind, a science classroom building and field house being built at Aiken High School right now will cost $10 million.

Officials estimate it would take 40 years to replace a school like Aiken High or North Augusta High entirely,

"If you've got a great teacher, you can have class in Quonset hut or an army barracks,” said State Superintendent Zais.

But Fleming and School Board Member Levi Green, argues that this border area has different dynamics. People do judge books by their covers, he says, and they sometimes bypass Aiken County schools altogether.

"I'm more familiar with the North Augusta situation and how close we are to Columbia County, and some of our schools, most notably the high school, do not have high curb appeal,” Fleming said.

In Aiken County, taxpayers only spend $7,725 per student each year the median is $8,866. Caver says Aiken’s is one of the lowest in the state.

Board members say another source of revenue is needed. Board members want the option of voting for a one-cent sales tax. Right now, however, the state won't allow it.

State law prohibits counties from voting on a sales tax unless that county brings in $7 million or more each year in accommodation taxes. Only Charleston and Horry counties do -- not Aiken.

That's why Fleming and other board members are begging state lawmakers to change things.

Rep. Bill Taylor (R-Aiken), who attended the visits on Monday, says he’s aware of the request by the school board.

“I believe a number of legislators are amenable to getting them that opportunity through legislation,” he said.

He says it’s a measure that would allow voters to decide if they’re in favor of the one-cent sales tax or not.

“People in Aiken County will need to be convinced of the rightness of funding school constructions and expansions [if the law is changed],” he said.

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