The Charleston County School Board is taking steps that would enable a sales tax extension referendum to be held before November 2016, and it has the full support of the Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant mayors.
The school board voted 7-1 Monday night to allow the board chair and district officials to approach the Charleston legislative delegation with a request to change state law to permit the district to ask voters in November 2014 or 2015 whether they want to extend the 1 percent sales tax for school building construction.
If state law isn’t changed, the soonest the district could put the issue on voters’ ballots would be November 2016. Officials say waiting until then is a problem that would cause a gap between building programs and delay construction on much-needed projects.
The leaders of the county’s three biggest cities and towns – Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Mount Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails – made a strong statement for the district’s effort. They wrote in a letter that they were unified in their support for the continuation of the 1 percent sales tax. School Superintendent Nancy McGinley presented that document to the board Monday night.
The mayors wrote that they stood ready to get behind the district in its talks with lawmakers about allowing the referendum to happen in November 2014.
“We respectfully request that you move forward to ensure there is no delay in addressing school overcrowding and facility refurbishment,” the mayors wrote.
Continued growth has driven the need to expand and enhance public facilities, and the three municipalities are experiencing school overcrowding and need the board’s leadership to continue to provide safe and modern buildings, the mayors wrote.
On the issue of whether to talk to lawmakers about changing state law, board member Chris Collins voted against the majority, and board member John Barter was not present.
Barter is chairman of the board’s Audit and Finance Committee, and he voted in favor of this same proposal last week when it went before the committee.
Collins said he opposed the district’s proposal because he wanted to be able to tell voters what projects would be part of the next building program. He said he would be OK with waiting until 2016 to put the issue to voters.
“I just don’t see the urgency of going out now,” he said.
Board member Tom Ducker also asked about what projects would be included, and he said lawmakers might want to know the construction work the referendum would cover.
District officials said those decisions haven’t been made yet. Board member Todd Garrett said it would be premature to say the question would be on the 2014 ballot without first educating the public on the district’s priorities, explaining what construction projects weren’t completed in this building program and what would be done in the future.
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 board’s action Monday does not commit the board to putting the sales tax extension on the November 2014 or 2015 ballots. Board members just want to have those options available for consideration.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.