Charleston County school officials looking at November 2014 school building referendum but need lawmakers help
Editor’s note: The print version of this story has been clarified to better explain school officials’ desire for changing state law regarding their 8 percent debt limit.
Charleston County school leaders need lawmakers’ help if they want to ask voters in November 2014 to extend the 1 percent sales tax for school building construction.
School district officials have been eyeing next year’s general election as ripe for putting the referendum on voters’ ballots, but Mike Bobby, the district’s chief of finance and operations, said Monday that can’t happen until November 2016 unless state law is changed.
The law doesn’t allow the school district to make that request of voters until two years before the tax ends. That means they couldn’t put the issue on voters’ ballots until December 2014, which would be a month too late for the November general election. If nothing changes, the district would be forced to wait until November 2016 to request that the sales tax be extended, and that would delay some construction projects.
“We would like to seek help in changing the statute that would allow us to be on the ballot earlier,” Bobby said.
The Charleston County School Board’s audit and finance committee signed off Monday on the district administration’s request to allow the board chair and district staff to meet with members of the county legislative delegation to request changing state law. The issue goes to the full board for consideration on Monday.
Voters approved in November 2010 a 1 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.
The district has capital needs that weren’t part of that sales tax, and School Superintendent Nancy McGinley said in August that district leaders were targeting next fall for requesting voters extend the tax.
County school board member John Barter, who also chairs the audit and finance committee, said the board might decide that 2014 isn’t the best time to ask voters to extend the sales tax, so it would be nice if odd-numbered years, such as 2015, also were an option. Referendums only can be on voters’ ballots during a general election, which happens in even-numbered years.
The district hasn’t decided how long it would request to extend the sales tax, but they expect it to last at least six more years.
The board’s audit and finance committee also gave the go-ahead for district staff to ask legislators to make three other changes to state law, but Bobby said its top priority is the rules regarding when the referendum can be held.
“Everything on top of that would be a plus,” Bobby said.
The other requests include: being able to ask voters’ permission to issue debt that wouldn’t count against its 8 percent limit, which would help with cash-flow issues that arose during this building program; allowing sales tax revenue to be used to pay off existing debt, which would lower property taxes; and enabling the district to collect taxes on food stamp-eligible products. The latter is permitted by the county’s sales tax but not by the one imposed by the school district.
“By lifting (the latter) exemption, it would generate more money next time,” Bobby said.
Being able to exceed the 8 percent debt limit also would enable the district to accelerate the timing and sequence of projects, such as possibly starting earlier high-priority projects including a new elementary school in the Carolina Park development in north Mount Pleasant.
“Are you trying to get me excited?” joked board member Elizabeth Moffly, who repeatedly has pushed the board to find a way to build that elementary school now rather than later.
Barter said he’d like to ensure the district would have some cap on its borrowing ability so there is “a limit of prudence.”
No decisions have been made on which projects would be funded, but Bobby said the building program would have three goals: new construction and renovation; major capital improvements, such as roofs, windows, and air-conditioning that aren’t funded in the current program; and reducing the tax rate on residents.
Bobby said district officials already have talked with the state Education Oversight Committee about the potential change in state law, and others, specifically Berkeley County, might be interested in helping the district lobby for these changes.
Moffly said this is going to be a tough sell to lawmakers, and if they agree, to pass it among voters. “People are one-cented and half-cented out,” she said.
Barter responded by saying an estimated 30 percent of the county’s sales-tax revenue is from paid visitors.
“It’s an awfully efficient way to build necessary things like schools,” Barter said. “All we’re trying to do is get a discussion with the legislative delegation going at this point.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.