Obama appeals for 'hope over fear' in address

President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Chief Justice John Roberts after taking the oath of office. At right rear is first lady Michelle Obama.

Lower Dorchester County voters likely will be asked in November whether they want to support a referendum to improve several schools and build a few more, which could increase property taxes or add a penny to sales tax.

The Dorchester District 2 board did not vote to hold a referendum during its workshop to discuss the issue Thursday, but it did move a step toward that goal.

"We have to vote for (a referendum), but I would certainly put my money on it at this point," said board Chairwoman Frances Townsend. "Our needs have become so great that I don't see how we can avoid it."

The time line discussed Thursday includes deciding by August whether to have a referendum.

The board was preparing to ask voters to pass a $165 million bond referendum in March 2009 when it decided to shelve the idea, fearing that voters would not support it.

"The economy was so wretched that it was a foregone conclusion that it would lose, so why would we want to burn all of our bridges on a bad deal?" Townsend said.

A referendum in March 2003 that asked for $98 million for schools also failed.

"We didn't tell people (then) that we were hanging on by a thread and we were 20 years behind," said Superintendent Joe Pye. "Now the story's got to change. We've got to tell it like it is. We made it sound like if we don't get this, we'll be OK and that's not the case."

A facilities study should be finished in February or March, then the board can start prioritizing the projects, Townsend said.

Possibilities for projects include new elementary, middle and high schools and facility improvements or repairs, such as new roofs, wireless technology and bathroom renovations.

"When we get the facilities report, that's when we have to make a priority list," Townsend said. "It will have a dollar figure on it."

She said the new report will include some of the same items the district planned to fund in 2009, but "prices were higher then. For that much money today, we can get a whole lot more, but at the same time, our needs are greater now, too, because we've grown by several thousand students since then."

Each year, the district gets several hundred new students, and many of the schools are at or over capacity.

The board also has not decided how to pay for the projects. It could ask for the total amount in bonds at once or over several years. For each $50 million in bonds, the property taxes on a $100,000 house would increase by about $24, district Chief Financial Officer Allyson Duke said.

The board also could decide to ask voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase to fund the projects or part of the project.

District spokeswoman Pat Raynor said the district has been advised it might have a better chance of a referendum passing during a regular election in November than during a special election in March, as was held in 2003 and planned in 2009.

Board members Barbara Crosby, Bo Blanton and Lisa Tupper will be up for re-election in November.

Berkeley County School District also recently announced that it will ask voters to approve a $250 million referendum in November.

"Our neighbors are way ahead of us in their building programs," Pye said. "We have become the have-not district."

He said he and Townsend plan to meet with Berkeley County School Board Chairwoman Kathy Schwalbe and Superintendent Rodney Thompson to share information and talk about possibly working together on their referendum efforts.