MOUNT PLEASANT — Charleston County residents could be asked as soon as next fall to extend the one percent sales tax hike so new schools can be built faster.
School Superintendent Nancy McGinley told the Mount Pleasant Town Council on Wednesday night that the district intends to make that request of voters so it can do building projects more quickly. Her comments came as part of her response to a question about when the fast-growing northern end of town could expect to see a new elementary school.
“It's not just north Mount Pleasant,” she said. “It's West Ashley and North Charleston, too.”
Voters approved in November 2010 a one percent, six-year sales tax increase that will generate an estimated $440 million. The money was earmarked for specific school building projects across the county to be completed by 2016.
McGinley didn't offer any details about how long the sales tax would be extended or what projects it would cover. The school board would have to sign off on that proposal, and she hasn't made a formal presentation to the board about it.
Board Vice Chairman Craig Ascue was at the Town Council meeting, and he said he wasn't surprised to hear the superintendent talk about extending the sales tax. The north end of Mount Pleasant needs an elementary school as well as middle and high schools because the growth isn't going to stop, he said.
“We're having to cobble together funds to make this program work,” he said. “Mount Pleasant has needs, but all over the county, there are needs.”
Board member Elizabeth Moffly, who also was at the meeting and often is at odds with McGinley, said she could get behind an extended sales tax. She questioned whether next fall would be too soon to put a referendum on voters' ballots, but she said the district still has projects that need to get done.
At the school board's Monday night meeting, board member John Barter asked Bill Lewis, the district's chief operating officer who oversees capital projects, about the possibility of extending the tax specifically for Mount Pleasant.
Lewis responded by saying although the discussion of overcrowding has focused on Mount Pleasant, it's “every bit as difficult” in North Charleston. West Ashley also has a number of new developments near Bees Ferry Road, he said. So while the board has heard from Mount Pleasant residents, it has to be shepherd to the entire county, he said.
“I'm more concerned about West Ashley overcrowding because we don't have an interim solution like we do in East Cooper,” Lewis told the board. “I would prioritize West Ashley and put a tie between East Cooper and North Charleston
McGinley spoke to Town Council on Wednesday night at its invitation. The special meeting was solely to discuss schools, and the conversation revolved around overcrowded schools, how the district was addressing that issue, and what it planned to do in the future.
McGinley spent nearly an hour presenting information and dispelling what she said were rumors, and she spent about as long fielding written questions from the standing-room audience as well as council members.
Some asked about the timeline for a second high school. Wando High, the community's sole high school, is the biggest in the state. It's enrollment this year has exceeded 3,645, but it's building only is designed to hold 3,007 students.
A Center for Advanced Studies will open on campus next fall and provide 600 more seats, but a new high school isn't slated to be built until after 2016. McGinley hinted at the possibility of using the former Wando High on Mathis Ferry Road as an interim high school option. That site is being used temporarily by Jennie Moore Elementary and Laing Middle.
“It's time to think creatively about re-purposing existing buildings,” she said. “When Laing Middle moves to its new campus, we need to think about what are we going to do with the old Wando High. I'm not suggesting anything except that it's time to start thinking about it.”
She also said the district was exploring every legal possibility for securing the $36 million needed for a new elementary school for the north end of the county.
Council members suggested a number of ideas. Councilman Elton Carrier asked the district to consider using the former Wando High campus as a temporary site for elementary students who eventually would be zoned for the new school in the Carolina Park development.
Councilman Ken Glasson asked about the possibility of the Carolina Park developer building the new school and the district later paying back those funds. He said he appreciated the district's efforts to alleviate overcrowding, but those were “a Band-Aid on something that needs to be addressed.”
Councilman Chris Nickels asked the district to reallocate the money for the new Sullivan's Island Elementary to a new elementary school for the northern end of Mount Pleasant, a suggestion that prompted applause from the crowd.
“It's not a done deal,” he said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.
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