The Beaufort County School District may ask voters to approve a sales-tax increase next year that would generate more than $480 million.
A little more than half of the money would go toward new Bluffton-area schools and additions and upgrades at existing schools, Superintendent Jeff Moss told the school board's finance committee Monday.
The board still needs to decide how it would spend the other half -- about $215 million over 15 years. Options include paying down the district's debt and providing property-tax relief on homes, vehicles and businesses.
"That is a huge benefit to taxpayers," Phyllis White, the district's chief operational officer, said Monday.
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While the finance committee agreed to bring the discussion to the full board next month, some members hesitated to throw their full support behind the plan, which could jeopardize similar efforts by Beaufort County.
Board member Geri Kinton asked Moss why a schools sales-tax referendum could not wait another two years, allowing voters to focus instead on a tax proposal being considered by Beaufort County Council for county infrastructure and capital improvement projects.
"I'm not suggesting we do that. I'm just saying we need to look at everything that happens," Kinton said. "There's stuff we need for the county as well. One doesn't outweigh the other."
Moss said that the school district's student enrollment is growing too fast for the district to wait.
Under the preliminary plan, the sales tax would be increased by one percent and the school district would spend:
- $138.9 million of the proceeds on new schools and $40 million for school additions and renovations. $34 million for roofing and heating and air conditioning upgrades. $7 million to purchase land in southern Beaufort County for a school addition or a future school.
The money would allow the district to build two new Bluffton-area schools by 2020 and complete 10 school additions by 2021, such as new wings at May River High School and River Ridge Academy and wrestling and gym additions at Beaufort, Bluffton and Whale Branch Early College high schools.
Moss has also tentatively offered to share about $24.1 million a piece with the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the Technical College of the Lowcountry.
He added that even if the school district were to partner with or step aside for the county's own referendum question, which is currently in development, there's no guarantee county taxpayers will support the list of projects decided by an independent sales-tax commission.
"That group really was going to look after the municipalities first, and the county second, and then we were going to be third," Moss said. "So in terms of ensuring we can satisfy what we know is coming down the road ... The (schools) sales tax is much more attractive."
The school district's own slate of projects would need some trimming if the board were to partner with Beaufort County Council to present one joint sales-tax referendum, an option Moss and county officials have weighed in recent months as an alternative to abandoning a sales-tax increase or putting two referendums before voters.
Moss criticized that plan Monday, noting a partnership would generate a maximum of just $120 million over eight years for the school district and would not provide tax relief to property owners.
The district estimates resident homeowners would save about $127 per year in taxes on a $300,000 house under its proposal.
"We should give something back if we can," Moss said of the tax relief. "I don't know of any approach the county can use to do that."
While no committee members objected to the proposal, Paul Roth, Geri Kinton, Laura Bush and Earl Campbell voted unanimously to continue the discussion with the full board Dec. 8.
If the board decides to proceed, the referendum would go before voters in November 2016.
"This is a very important step for us to take," Bush said.
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.