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Column: Nobody lied; it was worse

Posted: June 14, 2018 12:48 p.m.
Updated: June 15, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a small schools report given to the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees’ finance committee showing it will take far more than $1 million each to bring Baron DeKalb (BDK), Bethune (BES) and Mt. Pisgah (MPES) up to current building codes. It would take a minimum total of $33 million to renovate the schools or a maximum of $42 million to replace them. The report suggested two cheaper alternatives: Consolidate BES and MPES for $15.8 million, or consolidate all three schools for $19.9 million.

On Facebook, someone asked whether voters were deliberately misled in regards to the Nov. 2016 $130 million bond referendum. Someone else answered, no, and linked to a Feb. 2016 article about how then school board chairman and current Trustee Ron Blackmon had explained to an audience in North Central High School’s auditorium that the estimated cost would be about $5 million each to upgrade the schools, versus constructing a single, new, consolidated school for the same total price of $15 million.

So, voters had a clue early on in 2016 about what might end up on the ballot.

Many North Central residents had made it clear then -- as they did before a failed 2014 referendum -- that they did not want to see their schools consolidated.

In looking at how the 2016 referenda got placed on the ballot, I find no one lied. What did happen, in my opinion, was worse. Fingers were pointed at folks on both sides.

A year before the North Central meeting, just four months after the failed 2014 referenda, trustees started thinking about a second ballot issue for 2016. This upset many people who believed the people had spoken, but some trustees and the district wanted to see if they could do a better job of explaining the benefits of a new set of proposed projects and the 1-cent sales tax.

During the course of the next year, trustees went back and forth on what to do. They also learned about a possible future 2,100-lot residential subdivision in Lugoff called Coldbranch that could mean the need for more classrooms in the West Wateree.

In March 2015, trustees passed, on a 7-2 vote, a motion to begin developing what would become the 2016 referendum. As expected, even though nothing was yet set in stone, folks began fighting over consolidating the North Central schools versus putting enough money into them to bring them up to code.

That August, Bethune Town Councilman Don Witham addressed trustees, asking them to keep BES open or, if necessary, consolidate only BES and MPES on S.C. 341 between the two communities.

For months, trustees debated that idea versus consolidating on land the district already owns near North Central Middle School.

In Oct. 2015, trustees heard a proposal for a $106.47 million bond issue and the penny sales tax to be placed on the Nov. 2016 ballot.

By March 2016, however, the estimated cost of all projects the district proposed throughout the county shot up to $138.8 million, primarily because of inflation. At that point, the proposal included consolidating BES and MPES to Keys Lane, not S.C. 341. BDK was left alone.

Then, on May 3, 2016, everything changed.

That night, on a 6-2-1 vote, trustees chose to remove the BES/MPES consolidation and give only $1 million each to them and BDK for renovations.

What happened?

Politics as, somehow, S.C. Speaker of the House Jay Lucas, who represents part of that area, got involved.

At the May 3, 2016, meeting, former Trustee Louis Clyburn referred to Lucas’ indication that the House would only pass an extension of a bill allowing the district to place the 1-cent sales tax on the ballot if the North Central schools remained open and the bond amount was no more than $130 million. Outgoing Kershaw County School District Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan reiterated this at the recent committee meeting.

After slinging heated, but vague, accusations at each other over Lucas’ involvement, a majority of trustees took the 6-2-1 vote to take consolidation off the table, but also reduce the money for upgrades from a total of $12 million to just $3 million in order to meet Lucas’ $130 million or less ultimatum.

The referendum passed and, as part of the follow-up work, stakeholders provided a list of priorities for the three schools last October. The small schools report was generated to show how much it would cost to undertake those priorities.

Unfortunately, doing any one of a number of those priorities would trigger massive cost increases due to meeting current building, electrical and plumbing codes.

The study was the district’s way of conducting due diligence for the stakeholders who had provided those priorities for the district’s oldest schools.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. My suspicion is that nothing will change.

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