Berkeley schools projects may need $53M more
Heating and air conditioning, technology and kitchen equipment were not included in the $198 million school improvement referendum Berkeley County voters approved in November.
If they had been, the school board would not have had to approve last week an additional $53 million in special-obligation bonds for “furnishings.”
“We are allowed by law to sell installment revenue bonds,” said board Chairman Kent Murray. “We do that every year.”
Some Berkeley County residents still question it.
“It may be technically legal, but that does not make it right,” said Josh Whitley, who led a grass-roots effort against the campaign and in January lodged a complaint with the state attorney general over the way the campaign was run.
Former board member Terry Hardesty agreed.
“If they had not passed that $53 million, they had room to reduce taxes,” he said.
The bonds will not make taxes go up, district Chief Financial Officer Brantley Thomas said. The payments will come out of the district’s debt service budget, which next year will account for about $354 in taxes on a $150,000 house. About $60 of that is due to the “Yes 4 Schools” referendum.
“I’m always of the philosophy, as far as the debt service side, of not flopping back and forth between the mills, going down and then going back up every two years,” Thomas said. “Some school districts do that, but I think that kind of confuses the people.”
The board also is considering adding a $25-per-student technology fee and a tax hike of about $10 on a $25,000 vehicle next year to meet its proposed general operating budget.
The $53 million is needed to finance “equipment” including heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, kitchen equipment, and technology, Thomas said.
The bonds will be issued in phases, and the full amount may not be needed. Equipment typically amounts to about 20 percent of the total costs of construction projects, he said.
Many people assumed the campaign covered the entire cost of the projects, Hardesty said.
“They didn’t tell anybody that it didn’t,” he said. “I went back and looked through the minutes (from board meetings), and I didn’t see anything about that.”
The question on the November ballot said the money would be used for several purposes, including “equipping (including technology)” five new schools, “major renovations ... including technology and other equipment” for five schools, and “renovations ... including technology and equipment” at 22 others.
Dorchester District 2, which put a $179.9 million building campaign in front of voters last year, does not plan to issue any extra bonds to complete its projects, said spokeswoman Pat Raynor.
When Berkeley’s campaign was first discussed in January 2012, the bottom line was $250 million. In an email to District 2 Chief Financial Officer Allyson Duke on July 19, Berkeley Communications Director Amy Kovach wrote that “the number is changing next week from 250 to 198 but is not public yet.”
Five days later, the board voted to pursue the $198 million referendum.
Asked if the special-obligation bonds are intended to make up the difference, Murray said, “I don’t know. My focus as a board member is ... is what we’re doing legal and appropriate? And this is standard practice, as long as we stay within the limits of the law and operate legally.”
Whitley said he suspected something like this might happen.
“This proves that when I said it would take $250 million to actually accomplish the advertised projects, I was right,” he said.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or facebook.com/brindge.