In two public meetings Thursday, Aiken County school officials accounted for their stewardship of the 1 cent sales tax that has funded several projects and made a pitch for a new $90 million bond issue to keep up with anticipated growth.
"Inaction is not an option," Superintendent Sean Alford said during a town hall in the new NAHS cafeteria. That meeting followed a "Progress of the Penny" sales tax update.
While most of the projects funded by the 1 cent sales tax are nearly complete and revenue is exceeding expectations, the school system is facing new challenges from a westward movement of its population — away from Aiken and toward North Augusta.
The student population won't change radically, but "where they live will change rapidly," Alford said.
That means more space will be needed in areas that don't have it now, he said. Also, because Aiken County hadn't done a comprehensive study of where students live and go to school for 30 years, other issues have arisen.
For example, about 3,600 students attend a school other than the one they are zoned to attend. That's about 15 percent of the total student body.
Similarly, the lack of a "clean feeder system" makes it difficult for parents and students to know what schools they'll attend as they progress from elementary school to middle school and on to high school.
Alford wants to fix those problems by combining new construction and renovation with realigned school zones.
In Aiken's Area 1, for example, all elementary schools would feed into a sixth-grade-only school at what is now Aiken Middle School.
Students who attended Aiken, North Aiken and J.D. Lever elementary schools would go to Schofield Middle in the seventh grade, and on to Aiken High in the ninth grade.
Students who attend East Aiken and Millbrook would go to Kennedy Middle School in the seventh grade and South Aiken High in ninth grade.
Trolley Run Station's students would become part of Area 1, and attend Aiken Elementary, Schofield Middle and Aiken High.
A similar arrangement in Area 3 would send students from Byrd and Gloverville elementary schools, and a new elementary school created by repurposing Byrd Learning Center, to Leavelle McCampbell Middle School. Students from Clearwater, Jefferson and Warrenville would go to Langley-Bath-Clearwater Middle. All Area 3 students would go to Midland Valley High.
The district would undertake annual residency checks to make sure students attend their zoned schools.
Students who have received special permission to attend an out-of-zone school would not be affected, Alford said.
In North Augusta's Area 2, the superintendent said, the district is four weeks away from obtaining the deed to a donated 85-acre parcel near Exit 5 in North Augusta. The land will be used for a new elementary/middle school to handle the impact of westward migration.
Alford stressed to his town hall audience -- even asking them to repeat his words -- "no decisions have been made." His proposals, including the bond referendum, are just that, he said, and the public still has time to weigh in. The school board ultimately will decide.
Few questions were asked during the town hall, but one person pointed out the penny sales tax contributes 10 percent of its proceeds to property tax relief, so the $90 million Alford is asking for would cost the owner of a $100,000 home only about $9 a year, less even than Alford's estimate of $20 -- "a Diet Coke a month."
With that money, Alford proposes to expand Midland Valley High School, upgrade and expand "high utilization" elementary schools Millbrook, Belvedere and Hammond Hill, and build the new elementary/middle school in North Augusta.
Without the bond issue, work couldn't start on the first of those until 2025. Even if the current 1 cent sales tax were extended, which would require voter approval, the start date stays the same.
The new bond issue would allow all of them to start in 2018 or 2019 and be finished by 2022, Alford said.
"We believe it's the right thing to do for kids," he said.
Alford ended the meeting by encouraging residents to contact their board members and him for more information, and to make their feelings known.