Three people spoke to the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees during its April 7 meeting about the possibility of bringing a new set of facility construction and penny sales tax referenda to voters in 2016.
Bethune Town Councilman John Heflin briefly asked the board to engage him, his fellow council members and the Bethune community in seeking consensus on the issue.
Local attorney Ben Connell and recently retired banker Dennis Stuber -- members of a pro-referenda group formed in 2014 -- made a short presentation on their early thoughts about putting the referenda back on the ballot next year.
Heflin spoke during the meeting’s public forum. He reminded trustees the Bethune council’s regular meeting are held on the second Thursday of each month and invited them to attend.
“We would also like to open a dialog with you all about the schools in our area,” Heflin said. “We ask that you keep an open mind as you explore this new road that you’re going through. We have some ideas, and we would like to collaborate with you.”
Connell and Stuber were members of Kershaw County Citizens for Children (KCCC), a pro-referenda group which worked in 2014 to educate the public on the merits of the bond and penny sales tax. Both referenda failed to pass, although the bond referendum more narrowly than the penny sales tax measure. Voters defeated the construction bond referendum 9,097 to 8,755, a difference of only 342. The penny sales tax question -- which would have used a 1-cent sales tax to prevent a necessary property tax increase had the bond measure passed -- failed 10,864 to 7,475, a 3,389 margin.
The district and school board have indicated a desire to reform the citizens group, and asked Connell and Stuber to appear at the April 7 meeting.
Connell started the discussion by saying there were many good ideas in the bond referenda’s project list he hopes will be built upon in a second referendum.
“We’re very encouraged by the steps you’ve taken to consider another one. On the front end, there are certainly -- and this is in your purviews -- schools that needs replacing or renovation, but we’re here primarily to talk about the process and our experience in the process last time,” Connell said.
He said he was glad the district is getting started early on educating voters on why it feels a bond referendum is needed.
“I understand that you’re already postured to have a number of public forums and talk to each of the communities in the area to get people’s feedback about what it is they want to see in their community from the school district,” Connell said. “I would say openly and with a whole heart and warm arms, invite those who opposed the referendum last time. I think it would be very useful in the long run to invite those folks out and have a real open discussion there.”
Connell also said having new and repaired schools is critical to staving off what he called a “brain drain” of talent from Kershaw County.
“I was a cog in that wheel. I left in 2000 after graduating high school, went off and got an education, worked for a while because an opportunity didn’t necessarily present itself around here to build a professional background. But, thankfully, I got a family opportunity that’s allowed me to come back to Kershaw County,” he said.
Connell said most students will not have such opportunities. He said he was surprised to learn about 70 percent of Kershaw County residents who are able to work do so outside the county.
“They’ve taken all that intellectual capital, they’ve taken … the work ethic that has been ingrained into them in this community, all the investment that’s gone into them, and they’ve taken it somewhere else to better that community. So, we want to create opportunities to come back,” Connell said.
He spoke about a visit he took the day before with Stuber, Kershaw County School District (KCSD) Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan, Kershaw County Administrator Vic Carpenter, County Economic Development Director Peggy McLean and others to Richland-Lexington School District 5’s Center for Advanced Technical Studies (CATS)
“It was a very, very useful experience. A center like CATS … which would be the equivalent of like a new ATEC here, is a big draw for business,” Connell said. “When they see that the labor force is ready to work upon graduation -- they’re already trained up on machines, they’re ready to step in and be confident to, perhaps, fix the machines. Industry wants to come to communities that invest in themselves.”
He said the proposed combination of ATEC -- the district’s Applied Technology Education Campus -- and Central Carolina Technical College at I-20 Exit 98 would be a “real positive” for Kershaw County.
Connell went on to mention his daughter, who will start at Doby’s Mill Elementary School in the fall and said he wonders what opportunities she will have in Kershaw County in the future.
“Are we really training students here to work, but to work somewhere else?” he asked. “I think we want to bring them back to this community and give them those opportunities, and that’s what this referendum can potentially accomplish.”
Before turning things over to Stuber, Connell said the last referenda vote proved the district and its supporters cannot operate in a “vacuum” or “bubble.”
“Everybody needs to be involved. Here, tonight, we can see that several officials from Bethune are present. They need to reached out to. Additionally, those in Elgin and Camden, need to be reached out to,” Connell said, even suggesting the board speak to the Lugoff Fire-Rescue Chief Dennis Ray, who he called the “unofficial mayor of Lugoff.”
Conell also suggested finding a way to make the language of the questions clearer for voters to understand, and possibly even combining the two questions into a single ballot measure.
While Stuber thanked the board and district administrators for their vision, he said everyone in support of the referenda failed to gain community support.
“I think it’s vital if we’re going to be successful. We need to have the time, the talent and the treasury to make this thing happen,” Stuber said.
Stuber said he assisted with a school bond referendum issues in Rock Hill School District 3 (RHSD 3) between 2000 and 2005.
“We had broad-based community support,” he said. “The chamber backed it, the city government, the county government, and they were vocal in that support. The local newspaper was behind it. Not only (by) being vocal, but they also provided funding,” Stuber said.
He said the KCCC spent less than $10,000 and only had a few months to campaign for the referenda here.
“It was, totally, an insufficient amount of time to get the word out, to talk to folks about the referenda, what these schools would mean to their communities, to our county,” Stuber said.
He said RHSD 3 spent about $29,000 in 2000, and about $37,000 in 2005. Stuber said RHSD 3 hired professionals facilitators to work with the public, specifically a former educator from Charlotte, N.C., who led many of Rock Hill’s community meetings. He said those meetings discussed not only what the referendum was going to do regarding new construction and improving existing schools, but provided opportunities for everybody to provide feedback to the RHSD 3 board.
“It was a good process and I think it’s been alluded to … it needs to be an open process. The more we can have give and take, the more we can strive to reach consensus within these communities as to what the needs are and how we can work together to get there, we’ve got to do that,” Stuber said.
The biggest thing Stuber said is needed is time, adding he is happy the district is getting started on the November 2016 proposal so early.
In other business during the April 7 meeting:
• Trustees unanimously added International Experience USA and International Student Exchange to the district’s list of approved exchange student programs.
• Trustees unanimously approved a long-term rental request from CrossPoint Church to continue utilizing Lugoff-Elgin Middle School for Sunday church services.
• The board congratulated Chandler Caulder, a North Central Middle School 7th grader, for qualifying for the 2015 National History Bee finals, to be held May 22-24 in Louisville, Ky., and for reaching semi-final status in the S.C. National Geographic State Bee in Columbia on March 27.