Beaufort County voters will decide Tuesday whether the school district can borrow millions to build and renovate school buildings and buy land for future school sites. A second question adds a twist to the scenario — asking voters whether the county’s sales tax should be raised to pay for the improvements and to lower property tax bills. Here’s what you need to know before you vote.
The two questions on the ballot
▪ Can the Beaufort County school board borrow up to $217 million, at once or over a period of time, to pay for the construction of new schools, renovations and repairs and the purchase of new land for the school district?
▪ Can the Beaufort County School District impose a 10-year, 1-percent sales tax and use the revenue to reduce property taxes, pay debt service on school district bonds and pay directly for any of the projects on the district’s $217 million list?
Why vote yes?
1. The school district has experienced a 10 percent increase in student enrollment since 2010 and anticipates those numbers to keep growing, particularly in southern Beaufort County. This year, 11 schools are already at 90 percent capacity or above.
2. By paying for projects with general obligation bonds and paying off the bond debt with sales-tax revenue, the school board says it will lower its millage rage, reducing your property taxes on school district debt service by more than 42 percent. The savings would be applied to owner-occupied homes, second/vacation homes, businesses and vehicles.
3. Though this is the first time the Beaufort County School District has proposed a sales tax to fund capital improvements, it is not a new concept in South Carolina. Five other S.C. counties have approved similar sales-tax measures since legislation created the option in 2008: Horry, Charleston, Cherokee, Aiken and Anderson counties.
Why vote no?
1. The plan requires trust in district leaders, which some community members are unwilling to give following recent controversies. The ballot language does not specifically state that the school board will lower property taxes on debt service by more than 42 percent if both proposals are approved by voters. But that is what district leaders are promising will happen.
2. Some think the school district is over-reaching by asking voters to approve some projects that are not directly tied to class sizes, overall capacity or building upkeep. For example, critics cite plans for combined bathroom, storage and concessions buildings at River Ridge Academy and Robert Smalls International Academy and a late addition to the project list of a $12.5 million auditorium at Whale Branch Early College High School.
3. Depending on your spending habits and property values, the cost of a 1 percent increase in the sales tax could outweigh the benefits of a reduction in the school district’s debt service. For example, a homeowner who currently pays $100 in debt service would save at least $42.45. To break even after the sales tax, the person would have to limit his purchases on which he pays sales tax to about $81 per week. To calculate your property tax savings, use the calculator available on the school district’s sales tax referendum website.
If both questions pass:
The county’s sales tax would increase by one percent in March 2017 for a period of 10 years, generating an estimated $313 million for the school district. The school board would pay for its projects as planned and would reduce its tax millage rate from about 32 mils to 18 beginning in 2019, reducing its portion of property taxes by more than 42 percent. For example, a home with an assessed value of $285,000 would have its property tax on district debt service drop from $361.50 to about $208.
If both questions fail:
The school board could increase its tax millage rate to pay for some of its new schools and improvements or it could put a traditional bond referendum before voters as early as this spring. District staff would present other options to the school board to cope with student enrollment growth, potentially including larger class sizes, modular classrooms, redistricting and changes to which schools serve which grades. For example, a K-5 school that has room for more students may become a K-8 school, while an over-capacity high school may only serve grades 10-12.
If votes are split:
▪ If voters only agree to let the district borrow $217 million, the district would likely have to increase portion of property taxes it receives by about 10 percent to pay off the new debt. The tax millage rate would rise to about 35 mils. The district could not place another sales-tax referendum before voters again until November 2018.
▪ If only the sales tax passes, the district would need to rework its list of schools it wants to build and school improvements because it would not have enough revenue on hand for projects as planned. The school board would likely place another version of the bond referendum before voters in the spring.
What’s in it for you?
▪ Renovations/additions to Beaufort High School, Riverview Charter School and Robert Smalls International Academy. HVAC upgrades to Battery Creek High, Beaufort Middle and Beaufort Elementary schools, the district office and maintenance building. Roof replacement and waterproofing to Beaufort High and Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary schools, Islands Academy/district office and maintenance building as well as Robert Smalls International Academy.
▪ Renovations/additions to Bluffton High, May River High schools and River Ridge Academy. HVAC upgrades to Bluffton High, Bluffton Elementary, H.E. McCracken Middle and Okatie Elementary schools. Roof replacement and waterproofing to Bluffton Elementary and H.E. McCracken Middle schools. Construction of two new schools, one of which with future additions as necessary.
Hilton Head Island:
▪ Renovations/additions to Hilton Head High, Hilton Head Middle schools. HVAC upgrades to Hilton Head High and Hilton Head Middle schools. Roof replacement and waterproofing to Hilton Head High, Hilton Head Middle, Hilton Head Elementary schools as well as Hilton Head School for the Creative Arts.
▪ HVAC upgrades to Coosa Elementary and Lady’s Island Middle schools. Roof replacement and waterproofing to Lady’s Island Middle School.
▪ HVAC upgrades to Port Royal Elementary School.
▪ Renovation/addition to Whale Branch Early College High School. HVAC upgrades to Whale Branch Elementary School. Roof replacement and waterproofing to Whale Branch Middle School.