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Election 2016: School bond campaign will be low key

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

An election campaign based on facts? One with no appeal for votes? Is it possible?

It will have be if it wants to hew to state law, according to the bond attorney for the Georgetown County School District. The school board has placed a $165 million bond referendum on the November ballot. While district employees can campaign for passage of the package of renovations and additions, they have to do so on their own time with their own resources.

“The basic rule is you can’t use any school district resources either directly or indirectly to influence the outcome,” Frannie Heizer, an attorney with the McNair Firm, told the board this week. “Everybody associated with the school district can campaign aggressively,” but only when they’re off the clock.

The school district has put a list of projects and costs developed by M.B. Kahn Construction of Columbia on its website. The information will also go on school websites.

The board has also discussed holding forums around the county. Beyond that, Superintendent Randy Dozier said he doesn’t envision much more of a campaign. “It’s a presidential election. People are going to be inundated. You don’t want to do overkill,” he said.

It helps that neither he nor school board members have heard any negative comments about the plan. It contains $108 million of renovations to roofs, bathrooms, heating and cooling systems, and other areas. Each of the four high schools will get an auxiliary gym and tennis courts. Waccamaw Intermediate will also get a gym and a music room. Waccamaw High will get a technology lab and a chorus room. The plan also contains money to upgrade the district technology infrastructure.

If voters approve, the current 28.5 mill property tax for district debt service will remain in place as bonds approved by voters in 1997 are paid off.

“I think you could argue that your referendum will sell itself,” Heizer told the board.

The district can produce information about the facilities plan, how it was developed and what will happen if the referendum doesn’t pass. It can even send that home with each of its 9,000 students, Heizer said. The only thing it can’t do is ask people to vote for the referendum.

The district also needs to be careful that any campaigning by staff on their own time doesn’t use district phones, computers or email systems, Heizer said. If the district holds informational meetings in schools, it has to offer the space to anyone else who wants to hold a forum, such as an opposition group, she said.

And with five of the nine school board members running for re-election in November, they can use their time on the stump to make a pitch for the bond referendum. “In a political forum, you are 100 percent authorized to give your opinion,” Heizer told board members. “Obviously the school district isn’t going to pay for it.”

Dozier said he hasn’t heard any opposition to the facilities plan or the bond referendum. Most people either want the district to do more or want to know the schedule for construction, he said.

“I would like to do the new construction first so people will have something to see,” Dozier said. “But you have to balance that with health and safety” such as bathroom renovations.

The timetable won’t be developed before the referendum is approved, but the district plans to put out a request for proposals from companies that can manage the flow of work if it passes.

“A lot is going to have to happen,” Steve Goggans, principal in SGA Architecture, told the board. His firm is on retainer with the district and he was asked to review options for structuring the projects. “You pick the method depending on the circumstances,” he said.

Since Georgetown County’s projects are mostly renovations, they are less appealing to contractors than new construction. Goggans, who is also a Georgetown County Council member, suggested the district use a “construction manager at-risk” form of contract and organize the projects within the facilities plan to create economies of scale.

“There’s a lot of activities in the counties around us,” Board Member Richard Kerr noted.

Goggans said much of that work will be wrapped up by the time Georgetown County is ready to start, no earlier than next summer. “Your timing is much better than it would have been,” he said.

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