An Important Message To All Citizens Of
Laurens County School District 55
First, we want to thank you for being here to listen to our message. Let us be clear, we are here as private citizens, but, as members of the Laurens County School District 55 (LCSD 55) Board of Trustees, we felt it was important to stand before our community to share our thoughts on what is in the best interests of the students and the future of Laurens County School District 55. There are 6 of the 7 Board Members in favor of this referendum and all but one of those members is here today. She had prior work commitments that kept her from attending.
According to the SC Department of Education’s Facility Assessment Report Phase I – for the Abbeville Plaintiff Districts issued on March 16, 2017, Laurens County School District 55’s overall facilities profile is only in the “fair” range (defined as marginally operational and/or acceptable but at the end of the material or systems useful life). These aged building systems and equipment represent a financial and operational risk to the district. The renovation and reorganization/or replacement of school facilities and infrastructure are critical to providing optimal learning opportunities to students as well as maintaining the financial and operational health of the district.
This message from the state is an echo of what we have known for some time and for which we have had frequent conversations with former superintendents. In the past, we have only addressed the issue from a renovation/addition perspective, not because that was the best solution but because it was the easy, manageable solution. The cost of these projects was certainly much less than the cost of a new high school; but, their impact has been negligible in meeting the needs of our current student population. When the board selected Dr. Stephen Peters to be the new Superintendent of Laurens County School District 55, we charged him with the responsibility of reviewing our facility needs and making a recommendation regarding the best path to resolving those needs. Dr. Peters and his staff took on this challenge and identified what we believe is the best path forward for our students, our district, and our community. The proposed new Laurens District High School is the product of that work.
As board members, we examined the proposal and saw its capacity to resolve many of our facility concerns by providing a 21st century educational environment for our high school students and reducing the current overcrowding of our high school. We also saw the opportunity to have a positive impact on our middle school students by utilizing the existing high school campus as a servant to their needs. The reduction in the number of students combined with minimal campus renovations will reduce the stress on the existing building. It will also give our middle school students access to science labs (which are currently not available on three of our four middle school campuses), better technology, better athletic facilities, and curricula geared to specific student interests and a career focus. The new high school will also allow us to rededicate the Laurens Middle School campus as a new elementary facility to help reduce overcrowding that currently exists at both Ford and Laurens Elementary Schools. The Sanders Middle School campus will continue to serve the community as the new home of Laurens Prep Academy and provide other community based services. Contrary to reports regarding school closures, we will continue to operate at least nine schools in Laurens County School District 55. Some of those schools, however, are going to have a new home in separate areas of the current high school campus.
Now, though it has been many years in the making, the Laurens County School District 55 Board of Trustees has placed a question on the September 5, 2017 election ballot. That question asks the citizens of Laurens County School District 55 to approve the issuance of up to $109 million in bonds. The primary and stated purpose is to build a new comprehensive high school for Laurens County School District 55 students in grades 9 – 12. The size of the bond is to ensure that we are able to complete this project in its entirety without having to come back to the community for additional aid. If there are funds still available after completion of the new high school, we will add an early childhood center to the campus of Ford Elementary School, build a new gym on the campus of Gray Court-Owings School, and complete renovations necessary on other campuses to correct critical shortcomings identified in the Facilities Assessment Report. These additional projects will move forward using excess bond proceeds (if available), money set aside for the Abbeville Plaintiff School Districts, and from sound and effective fiscal management of district resources.
Current law allows the Board of Trustees to borrow up to 8% of the assessed value of property owned by the district. At this time, that borrowing capacity would only yield approximately $3.6 million. In today’s market, the cost of a new school and other facility improvements far exceeds this borrowing capacity. In order to exceed this cap, Laurens County School District 55 must ask for voter approval. The requested bond limit of $109 million does not exceed Laurens County School District 55’s financial management capacity. For those community members who believe the board’s request will decrease in size if construction is delayed, please understand that costs for building are going up and the needs of the district will continue to expand. If this referendum fails to pass, the next referendum is likely to be for an even larger amount.
There are several reasons we find our district in this position. First, State curriculum standards and requirements for schools have changed dramatically since South Carolina passed the Education Accountability Act and since the 2001 reauthorization of Federal education law (commonly referred to as “no child left behind”). Additional course requirements, block scheduling, and other changes have expanded the space needed to meet these requirements. Second, while we are proud of the quality of education we have been able to provide, we earnestly believe it could be better – we need more and better career and technical education (CATE) offerings to prepare our young people for local business, industry and trades, and we will continue to strive to have the finest college preparation program around. We also want our students to have full and daily access to arts instruction and other elements of an excellent (not average) education. Third, changes in best practices for teaching students (for example, project-based and collaborative learning models) require more space than what is available in a traditional classroom set-up. Building a new high school and repurposing the existing high school will allow for the necessary expansion of space at every level of the educational spectrum.
Many of our citizens have expressed a reluctance to say “yes” without knowing the exact location of the school. We have said repeatedly that we are looking for a site near the geographical center of the district, which would put it very near (within 1 - 3 miles) the current high school location. Many factors go into the purchase of land for such a venture. We have tried to maintain confidentially in order to avoid price inflation. Now, however, we believe it is best to share with our citizens some of the primary locations for which we are currently negotiating. These sites are offered in no particular order of priority. We are considering:
1. Select pieces of property across Highway 76 from the current high school.
2. Property off of Raider Road behind the current high school.
3. Property adjacent to and behind the Bi-Lo shopping center.
4. There are additional pieces of property that would meet our needs if we are unable to secure any of these properties at a fair price. Those additional pieces are still within the defined range for the new school site.
Let us talk on a practical level about any potential tax increase. Property taxes are proportional and progressive in nature. They are proportional because we tax everyone in a particular category (for example, homeowners) at the same percentage. In our case, that is 4% on homes and 6% on other personal property. It is progressive because it assumes that, as income goes up so will property owned by an individual. Most people who own property of any kind do not see it as a separate bill to pay. It is typically included in their mortgage payment (where they have paid money into an escrow account to make sure the taxes are paid) and in car or boat registration fees for license plate stickers. The new school and other projects will cost the average family about $20 per month in home and personal property taxes combined to retire the bonds. These property taxes will not place an undue burden on our children because they are incorporated into the processes used to purchase property when they begin to reach adulthood. What they will do is give students who are currently in school, and those who follow them, greater access to successful outcomes and opportunities. This last is what we, the members of the Board of Trustees before you today, and the many supporters who have joined us, see as the lasting outcome of passage of this bond referendum. We strongly urge our citizens to join us in voting “Yes.” Make September 5th a positively historic day for our community – the day we chose to enter the 21st century.