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Schools: District plans bond referendum for November

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The Georgetown County School Board plans to put a bond referendum before voters in November to raise $165 million for renovations and additions to facilities. If voters approve, the bonds won’t require a tax increase.

The district is close to paying off its debt from bonds issued after a referendum in 1997. Bob Dameron, the school district’s financial consultant, said the debt will be structured so it can be paid for over 25 years with the current 28.5 mill property tax.

Along with the debt for facilities, the district will continue to borrow $4.5 million a year for technology, transportation and other equipment.

“That’s already accounted for in the referendum estimate,” Dameron told the school board this week.

He also based his estimate on an increase in interest rates. If it issued the bonds today, the district would pay 3.5 percent. If interest rates go to 5 percent, the district could still cover the debt with the current tax rate.

The board will continue to review the facilities plan as district staff prepares the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. It could vote on the budget and the wording of a bond referendum June 21. “That gives the public a chance to look at this,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said.

School Board Chairman Jim Dumm said he hasn’t heard any comment on the plan since it was presented earlier this month. He thinks that will change with a referendum on the horizon, particularly if voters realize that there won’t be a tax reduction as the current debt is paid off.

Board Member Richard Kerr, who represents District 6, said he has heard from some retirees who are concerned about a tax increase. He has also heard from parents who want improved facilities. He sympathizes with both views. “I’m retired and I’ve got a kid in school. I really hear from both sides,” Kerr said. But he added he hasn’t heard any concerns about maintaining the current tax rate for debt service.

Annual payments on the district’s 1997 bonds began to fall this year and will be under $10 million by 2019. In order for the district to begin work on the facilities sooner, Dameron proposed issuing short-term tax anticipation notes for the early construction and issuing a new round of bonds in 2019.

“We would have to layer those in,” Dameron said. If interest rates start to rise, the district could sell the bonds earlier. The district has a AA credit rating, and Dameron said the rating agencies have told him a new round of bonds won’t lower that. “You’re extending the life of your buildings,” and the agencies like that, he told the board.

The board can all a referendum any time, but Frannie Heizer, the district’s bond attorney with the McNair Law Firm, said the general election will provide the best turnout with no extra expense. The likelihood of passage rises with the number of voters, she said.

The district can explain the facilities plan and its financing. But Heizer said it can’t use public resources “to advocate for the ballot question.”

Facilities plan mixes the new and the renovated

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

If forced to choose among the $10.5 million worth of projects listed for his school in the district’s proposed facilities plan, Waccamaw High principal David Hammel would be hard pressed to decide between $4.9 million in athletic facilities and $2.9 million classroom space. The $531,000 upgrade to lighting would be nice, but it isn’t a priority. The roof, scheduled for a $665,000 renovation, is doing well since repairs were made a few years back, he said.

“We know five years from now his roof won’t be fine,” School Board Member Richard Kerr said. He served on the committee that worked with a consultant to draft the facilities plan. But he also understands the need for athletic facilities, particularly at a school that offers every sport sanctioned by the S.C. High School League. “It builds a stronger school and a stronger community,” Kerr said.

The facilities plan is a mix of pressing needs and anticipated repairs. The school board is reviewing the $131 million package of additions and renovations. With another $19 million in technology upgrades, $2 million toward a manufacturing center at the local Horry-Georgetown Tech campus and a 4 percent contingency, the plan totals $164.5 million.

“One of the things we don’t have is a timeline,” Kerr said.

That will be the next step now that the district has agreed to move forward with a bond issue to finance the plan, said Todd Weiss, project manager for M.B. Kahn Construction of Columbia, which prepared the plan. It will balance the district’s priorities with the efficiencies of construction, he said.

Heating and air conditioning account for $25.7 million or 23 percent of the proposed work. Expansion and improvement of athletic facilities total $21.6 million or 20 percent. Restroom renovations account for more than 11 percent or $12.6 million. That portion could be higher because the plan only itemizes the cost of major renovations. Some restroom work is listed as part of $20 million in “general renovations.”

At Waccamaw Elementary, the restrooms in the core of the building, built in 1976, have the original fixtures, principal Vervatine Reid said. “The sinks are rusty. The dryers are rusty,” she said. The $779,000 in renovations will make the restrooms cleaner and more appealing, something Reid said is important for young children.

But the top priority at the elementary school is a problem that has defied a fix for many years. “For parents and staff, definitely the No. 1 priority is the front parking lot needs to be redesigned,” Reid said. “It’s been a rough several years.”

Not only do waiting cars block Waverly Road, the current configuration makes deliveries difficult and could block access for emergency vehicles, she said. The facilities plan includes $429,000 for additional parking and canopies. “I’m no contractor,” Reid said, but she thinks that number sounds low. All told, the school is down for $4.5 million in renovations.

Principals say they haven’t heard much response from the community about the facilities plan. Neither has School Board Chairman Jim Dumm. “When things get more detailed and we start to prioritize, then we’ll start to hear something,” he said.

Reading through the recommendations, Dumm said most of the items are “normal wear and tear.” Those include things like the stage curtains at Waccamaw Middle School, which were installed when the school opened in 2001, a project funded by a $109.7 million bond referendum in 1997. Auditorium improvements will help strengthen the drama program at the school, principal Jamie Curry said. And the gym floor needs refinishing. “We use that a lot,” she said.

Other items in the $4.6 million of renovations are routine maintenance. “You don’t want to be in a situation where you have an emergency,” Curry said.

“You have to make sure you do your repairs,” said Tim Carnahan, principal at Waccamaw Intermediate, the district’s newest school. “That’s the main thing.”

The intermediate school is due to get an auxiliary gym and a band room. “Band just took off,” Carnahan said. With over 100 students, they can’t all practice at the same time in the current space. “It really hurts our scheduling,” he said.

Waccamaw High is one of the few schools where new classroom space is proposed. The facilities plan calls for a science lab and a computer lab for its distance-learning program. It will also get a new chorus room and that will free up space for an ROTC program. The home economics classroom will be renovated as a culinary arts classroom.

“We’re cautiously optimistic we’re going to get all the things we asked for,” Hammel said.

Each of the four district high schools is supposed to get an auxiliary gym, rubberized surfaces on their tracks and six tennis courts. Waccamaw’s plan calls for expanded practice fields and new stadium lights and bleachers. Hammel also hopes to include the press box in that list.

There was a suggestion to cut back on some of the athletic projects before the plan was presented to the school board, Kerr said, but he favored keeping them in. “Every principal has a need for more athletic facilities,” he said.

Waccamaw tennis teams played on private tennis courts for years until the county built a tennis complex at Stables Park. It might make more sense to add courts at the park rather than the school, Kerr said. “I go back and forth,” he said.

The issue points to another aspect of the facilities plan. “We have to be fair across the board,” Dumm said. The district is operating under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to operate schools where the enrollment is almost entirely African-American as long as opportunities for those students aren’t surpassed at other district schools. “It gets to be very, very touchy,” Kerr said.

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