Kids First - Laurens Future Press Conference Prepared Statement

An Important Message To All Citizens Of

Laurens County School District 55

Good Afternoon:

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.

A Citizen Speaks Out

We have all been seeing signs around the neighborhood and County asking us to vote NO on September 5th for the $109 million tax bond referendum to build a new high school. I've started to see a few vote YES signs.

We moved to Gray Court, because we knew the taxes were less than in Greenville County. We don't have kids, so in that respect, we don't care about education. But as a retired teacher, I do care about the education of children.

But now as a real estate appraiser, I am finding out WHY houses (and taxes) are cheaper in Laurens County. Of the 10 counties in the upstate, Laurens County High Schools have the LOWEST SAT scores. I talk to real estate people all the time, and they almost all agree that since the education is so bad here, and people KNOW it's bad, people are less likely to buy homes here, especially if they have kids. Perhaps that's why so many are home educated. 

Because there is less demand for homes in Laurens County, and based on its current lower than standard educational system, our home prices are not increasing at the same speed as surrounding Greenville, Spartanburg or Anderson Counties. 

Dianne Belsom is an organizer who is in favor of voting NO on September 5th. She states "I don't think our graduation rate for seniors is very high. I feel like our kids are coming out of high school, and they still are in need of remedial help. Kids graduate high school, and they're not qualified to actually do anything". Yet she STILL wants us to vote NO. 

I see signs regarding the September 5th vote stating that the $109 million bond will leave our kids with a greater debt. But if the kids here get a better education, their SAT scores will go up. If the SAT scores go up, and they leave high school with a better education, they are more likely to go to college, earn more money, and end up with LESS debt. With a better education, maybe a 2-year technical college will be more desirable. And with a 2-year degree, they will make more money, and the debt will be LESS.

But even if they don't choose further education, they will be better educated, and make more money. More money means less debt. 

If the education system here in the County gets better, people will more likely want to move here. More potential residents means a bigger demand for homes. Bigger demand means that home prices will go up. If you sell your home for more money, you will end up with LESS debt. 

So I urge everyone to vote YES. Not only will that put more money into the kids pockets, it will put more money into our pockets when we sell our homes.

Mr. Richard Marshall

Kick-Off Event Questions

At the recent "Kick-off" event (held at The Ridge on Tuesday, August 1, 2017) there was no time for a question and answer session with the audience. We did, however, want to know about questions people may have. We asked those who were interested to fill out a 3 x 5 card with their question and assured them the questions would be answered on our website and in social media. We hope this information helps in making your decision to support a new high school and recognize that this effort is in the best interests of the future of Laurens County.

  1. Does better schools mean better pay for teachers?
    • Teacher pay is a component of school operating expenses and is not related to the funds being requested in the bond referendum. Bond referendum funds can only be used for the design and construction of the new high school and other construction/renovation projects. In our conversations with Laurens County School District 55, they assure us that teacher and support staff pay is a priority in planning. The board of trustees approved a 2% pay increase for 2017-2018 and will continue to strive to make the district competitive in pay to its employees.
  2. Why was Sept. 5th picked for the day of the vote?
    • The original date for the referendum was to have been May 9th. Because of the information gathered in the four forums last February, the district felt like the public needed more time to evaluate the proposal and the district needed to provide more detailed information. The September 5th date is the traditional first Tuesday of the month when elections are held. It gave the district enough time to provide as much detail as possible and the public enough time to analyze the proposal without an extensive delay in the start of the project. Anyone who may not be able to vote on September 5th can submit an absentee ballot beginning August 22, 2017.
  3. Your explanation of cost is $2.24 per $1,000 of which value -- assessed or appraised value?
    • The estimated property tax, based on the fair market value (FMV) of a home (determined by the Laurens County Tax Assessor), will be $2.24 per $1,000 of  FMV (not its real estate market or assessed value).

  4. Why are there so few classrooms? It looks like less than the current high school.

    • The design drawings revealed at the kick-off event are preliminary drawings used to illustrate the general concept. The actual number and size of classrooms will be determined through an extensive analytical process undertaken by the architectural firm in concert with Laurens County School District 55 personnel (including teachers and support staff) when the referendum passes.

  5. I would like a more clear map of the intentions for the other schools.

    • First, we must convey that any plans for the use of existing district campuses are dependent on the passage of the referendum. When the referendum passes, the district will have at least two years to develop plans for the use of existing facilities in some new and purposeful way. Those plans will be developed in concert with the communities the district serves. What can be said now is that the current high school campus will house multiple middle school campuses, each with their own focus area and administrative team. This would maintain a small school environment while streamlining resources for more efficient use. Other proposals include using Laurens Middle School as an additional elementary school campus to alleviate overcrowding on other elementary campuses. Contrary to some reports - the district has no plans for closing any school campuses.

  6. One opposition sign says "4 schools will close." Is this correct? If so, which ones?

    • Contrary to those reports - the district has no plans for closing any school campuses. Some campuses may be repurposed (e.g., Laurens Middle School); but, the district will continue to operate a minimum of nine administrative campuses.

  7. If Laurens Middle School becomes an elementary school campus to help with overcrowding at K - 5 schools, what do we do with those 6 - 8 students?

    • It is anticipated that all Laurens Middle School students would transfer to one of the campuses which will be housed on the current high school campus. If you have suggestions as to how this might be handled most effectively, we would invite you to participate in specific planning sessions that would take place after passage of the referendum.

  8. There was a question asked at the "Kick-off" Event about the location of the proposed new high school.

    • We wish we could answer that question specifically and we hope to be able to do so before September 5th. Because the land has not yet been secured, the specific identification of parcels that might best suit the interests of the district could artificially inflate the price for such parcels. While the district indicates that it intends to pay Fair Market Value for such property, until negotiations are complete, it would be fiscally irresponsible to reveal a location. The intention is to locate the new campus within a 3 mile radius of the geographic center of the district. Those of you who may feel that you cannot vote "Yes" without knowing the specific location, we assure you that the district is acting with due diligence to provide the best possible location for the new school campus.

If you have any additional questions, you are free to send them to us at kids1st@laurensfuture.education or you can go to the district website at http://www.laurens55.org/bond-referendum-2f17301. You will find many of your potential questions have already been answered on their FAQ page.

School Design for a Rapidly Changing World

The design of the proposed new high school in Laurens County School District 55 has many wonderful attributes. It offers safety with limited external access points and security features such as hallways that run the length of the building. The most important design feature, however, is access to facilities representing all 16 career clusters identified in the Education and Economic Development Act. As a rural community, Laurens has an obligation to ensure that our children have opportunities to pursue careers in every area of interest.

We know that we live in a rapidly changing world. We cannot predict what the future will bring to our children. What we can do is make sure they are adequately, no, exceptionally prepared to meet its challenges. We are excited about the design and construction of a new high school. We also recognize the many benefits that will spread throughout the community as a result of this project.

Help us keep Kids First in Laurens' Future!