Charleston County New Schools (copy)

Workers put the finishing touches on the new Chicora Elementary School in this August 2016 file photo. The North Charleston school was one of numerous construction projects funded by previous rounds of one-cent sales tax funding. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Charleston County voters could decide next year if they want to keep paying a 1 percent sales tax to fund school construction, renovation and maintenance projects.

Originally approved in 2010 and reapproved in 2014, the local tax is expected to help fund about a billion dollars' worth of construction and renovation projects by 2022, including earthquake-resistant new buildings and major renovations that have already taken place across South Carolina's second-largest school district. 

The sales tax is set to expire in 2022, but the Charleston County School Board could ask voters in November 2020 whether they want to extend it further into the future, according to board finance Chairman Todd Garrett.

"There are ongoing needs," Garrett said. "We use it to pay down the debt and do capital maintenance."

The current phase of sales tax-funded construction and renovation projects, which lasts from 2017 through 2022, includes nearly a half-billion dollars worth of spending. Several big-ticket items are set to open in 2020, including the $103.7 million Lucy Beckham High School in Mount Pleasant, the new $53.3 million C.E. Williams Middle campus in West Ashley, and the $42.7 million North Charleston Center for Advanced Studies.

The nine-member school board would have to vote on whether to put the question to voters in the form of a referendum. Garrett said he is not certain how long the board would ask voters to extend the sales tax — or which projects it could fund.

With several rounds of new school construction already completed, he said the district might need to spend the money on maintenance, such as replacing roofs and air conditioning systems, as well as on classroom technology, such as teacher laptops and student electronic devices.

The district will also need to pay off some debt it has incurred. Like many districts, Charleston County uses a mix of sales tax revenue, general obligation bonds and installment purchase bonds to fund its capital projects. It pays down an average of about $40 million in debt per year, according to a recent draft budget proposal.

Any money raised by the sales tax would go toward capital projects, a separate funding stream from the $508 million general operating fund used for employee salaries.

The effective tax rate in Charleston County is 9 percent, which includes a 6 percent state tax as well as local sales taxes for schools, transportation and property tax relief.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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