March 31, 2014

Voters could face referendum on schools

Voters could be asked in the fall how they want Horry County Schools to pay for new schools the district needs to keep up with student growth.

Voters could be asked in the fall how they want Horry County Schools to pay for new schools the district needs to keep up with student growth.

The Horry County school board could decide to have a referendum on whether the district should borrow money, raise taxes by 4 mills to 14 mills, or both, in order to pay for all the schools they think are needed, board Chairman Joe DeFeo said Monday night.

The board approved a short-term facility plan in September that called for building school additions and replacing some schools. The board identified the need for more capacity after hearing updated enrollment numbers in January.

John Gardner, HCS chief financial officer, told the board Monday that the September plan could be paid for without raising taxes, using the penny sales tax – which is dedicated to education in Horry County – and the existing debt service of 10 mills, along with issuing $50 million in bonds over two years that would be paid off over 10 years.

Under that plan the projects would be built over seven years, with about $72 million left over.

Board member Jeffrey Garland suggested a 10-year, pay-as-you-go building plan, which DeFeo said the district could afford, but the downside would be the extra building time it would take for the schools, and the district could only build three middle schools instead of the four for which they have identified a need.

The board voted in February to proceed with the design process for top priority projects that were approved in September: the additions to Midland Elementary School and North Myrtle Beach Middle School and the replacement of Socastee Elementary School and the Horry County Educational Center, also known as the Alternative School.

Board members debated the merits of building a new Alternative School. The school serves students in grades five through 12, who are assigned to the school in lieu of expulsion, and the 1950s building – designed for elementary-aged children – has more portables than actual classrooms.

Board member Pam Timms said her constituents wanted to know why the district plans to spend about $4.7 million to replace the Alternative School, which houses about 200 students, when there are other pressing needs in the district.

Board member Karen McIlrath asked if the value of those students is less than the value of about 150 students who attend the new, $7 million Scholars Academy, but DeFeo pointed out that the Alternative School is a temporary situation for those students, although he did question why $4.7 million would be needed.

HCS Superintendent Cindy Elsberry said her staff is re-envisioning what that facility could be. She said there is potential for the space to serve a segment of students who have burdens and need flexible hours, in addition to students who are in trouble.

“I think this is an opportunity for us to look at who are the students we’re missing,” Elsberry said. “What do they need to keep them in school?”

DeFeo said there would be no decision at the next board meeting, but the board could call a vote of the committee of the whole, which is nonbinding. The next meeting will be April 7.

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