A tricky situation in funding education

  • Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Everyone who is against funding for education, please raise your hand.

There, I didn't think so.

You can't find anybody around here who says, “When it comes to tax-funded education, I'm against it.” And that must be just what the Charleston County School District (CCSD) board members were thinking when the majority of them slipped in a previously unannounced capital needs priority 18 hours before the deadline. With only three board members present and five calling in by phone, the CCSD majority voted to include a new $30-40 million Lincoln High School in McClellanville in the master plan for the upcoming sales tax extension referendum to be voted on in November.

Does this jeopardize the long-overdue second high school for Mount Pleasant? What about the elementary school needs in rapidly growing north Mount Pleasant, where Pinckney and Laurel Hill schools are already at capacity?

Never mind that new construction for a high school in McClellanville was not in the school district's Capital Programs Master Plan as recently as last spring.

Never mind that it was not in the school board's Integrated Priority List at any time prior to the call-in vote.

Never mind that the current enrollment at Lincoln High School, grades 9-12, is only 106 students.

Never mind that Sullivan's Island residents, when opposing the planned larger-scale elementary school on the island, were told that the district does not build new schools for fewer than 500 students.

Never mind that one of the best high schools in the country is just down Highway 17. Commute times for other East Cooper students at Wando are just about equal to the commute time from McClellanville.

Do the math, and you'll see that this school board has no problem asking the voters to approve a brand new high school at a cost of at least $283,000 per student, using the lower end of the estimated cost range and Lincoln's current enrollment. I'd be willing to bet that is the highest per-student school construction cost in the entire state of South Carolina.

CCSD board members Cindy Bohn Coats and Chris Fraser have spoken out against this action. Fraser wrote in a Post and Courier guest editorial, “The school board needs to support the recommendations made by CCSD for the priority projects that are expected to be adequately funded by sales tax receipts before turning to other projects that, while potentially desired, aren't addressing the most critical needs of the county.” To paraphrase Coats, she said new bricks don't by themselves provide any better education to students than old bricks. She's referring to the previous plan to refurbish the unused McClellanville Middle School in the heart of the beautiful village and make it the new high school.

How much more of this type of last-minute, slip-in-under-the-radar government action will South Carolina voters allow? If the referendum passes this November, the sales-tax increase will take effect in 2017 and run through 2023. Tax revenue estimates are $420 million on the low end and $501 million on the high end.

Despite the voters' highest notions and aspirations for the public good, and given that this sales tax (presumably) eliminates the need for CCSD to raise property taxes, this board action casts doubt on their trustworthiness to prudently handle half a billion dollars of tax revenue. They have placed all voters east of the Cooper in a dilemma. Unless something changes to win back public trust, I wouldn't call projects “shovel ready” just yet.

“He who is faithful in little is faithful also in much.” That's in the Bible, which can't be taught in public schools anymore.

Maybe it's beginning to show.

Will Haynie has published more than 400 oped columns as a feature columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Hendersonville (N.C.) Times-News when it was owned by the New York Times. His niche is as a humorous conservative. Find him on Twitter at @willhaynie or email him at Haynie.will@gmail.com.  

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