Bond referendum back on the table for Aiken Co. schools?

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2012

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- In 2010, a $236-million bond referendum to repair and replace several Aiken County schools was shot down. Voters gave it a thumbs down. The margins were 70 percent, opposed to just 30 percent in favor.

"I didn't think we would win because the opposition was well-funded," said Debbie Nix of We The People Aiken.

Nix was strongly opposed to the referendum.

Three years ago, the small business owner led the charge to nix the referendum that would cost taxpayers more. Now, she's gearing up for another possible fight.

"2010 is not forgettable. Seventy percent -- that's a large amount of the vote. That's a landslide," Nix said.

At Tuesday night's school board meeting, member Richard Hazen of Aiken suggested another bond referendum may be needed. As schools like Leavelle McCampbell Middle School are replaced using existing funds, he made the argument that other school would go without. He said as the district repairs Leavelle, it'll abandon other projects along with the proper amount of cyclical maintenance across the district.

"I think it's inevitable," Hazen said. "We're going to have to go back to the public to ask for money."

On Wednesday morning, Nix was lost for words.

"I'm just shocked. I am shocked that they think that that is a doable thing," she said.

Hazen suggest a 1-cent sales tax instead, but a change would be needed at the state level first before voters in the school district could vote for it.

On Wednesday morning, newly-elected school board member Tad Barber told News 12 both the penny tax and a bond referendum may be needed. However, he said his hope is that the problem could be solved with just a penny tax. He says school construction costs should be brought down drastically and is currently studying the way Richmond and Columbia counties build schools.

"We will fight this on the people's behalf," Nix said.

She agrees renovations are needed in schools like Leavelle and North Augusta High School.

"But see, we're not given those numbers and what's the needs assessment for a new school, and those are the things that the people of Aiken County deserve to know from their school board," she said.

Currently, not one of Aiken County's three senators have given them any commitment to change the law for a 1-cent sales tax option. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, says he has been in communication with board members and that he's still studying how the fix could legally be done. Sen. Shane Massey, R-Aiken, told News 12 he's also still in talks with board members.

Of course, not every school board member is for a new bond referendum. Board member Dwight Smith voiced his opposition Tuesday night. Member Wesley Hightower is also adamantly opposed. He tells News 12 that he's still blown away that it was even suggested during Tuesday's meeting. He says voters gave the school board a strong no the first time.

"I don't want to be a part of this," Hightower told News 12.


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