FLORENCE, SC (WMBF) - The Florence School District One held its first public forum Tuesday night at the Poyner Adult Education Center to present a $277 million property tax referendum to pay for school improvement projects.
It was standing room only and the school district said their goal was for parents and community members to walk away with an understanding of the funding and the impact the plan could have. Florence School District One School Board Chairman Barry Townsend said the plan could benefit every student, every school and every community if voters pass the referendum.
"We're not here to tell you that we are going to raise your taxes, and I think that's one of the misconceptions. We are here to share a plan that we think meets the needs of our district," Townsend said.
A presentation of the overview of the $277 million plan was given, and Townsend broke it down into four phases of which elementary, middle and high schools will undergo major renovations or be replaced with a new school. Schools like Briggs Elementary and Timrod Elementary are the smallest schools, so Townsend hopes to consolidate the two with a brand new school.
"I'm puzzled by the fear I hear sometimes of just giving the public the opportunity to choose, and that is what we are trying to do," Townsend added.
A $2.5 million, 1:1 technology component is also included, where every student would have a technology device. Florence School District One's bond attorney, financial advisor, and project architects attended the forum to answer any questions during the breakout sessions.
Florence taxpayers could see their property taxes go up from 32 mils to 77 mils. Townsend said, "Many people have asked why don't we just continue with the pay-as-you-go program, because on the surface it looks very successful, but that option is just not sustainable to get where we need to be using the pay-as-you-go - we are two decades away and then there are some projects that can't be addressed at all."
The school board believes increasing taxes is the best financial option.
"Some of the criticism of what we have done in the past is we have focused on only some corners of the city, and I don't believe this plan does that at all," Townsend said. "I believe that we have worked hard to make sure that everyone benefits and we are looking at the needs of the district as a whole."
West Florence High School is the oldest high school in the district which is overcrowded by 300 students and has 22 mobiles. Sherry Elder's three kids attend West Florence. She said, "Some of the mobiles don't lock so they are afraid and texting from school saying come pick me up, so in order to get a school that can lock down I think is something we need in our county."
South Florence High and Wilson High Schools both could see major renovations totaling from $15-$17 million. Dewey L. Carter Elementary, McLaurin, Greenwood, Lester, Carver elementary and Sneed Middle Schools are proposed for renovations ranging from $3 to $7 million.
Elder explained how the property tax increase does not concern here because it is not much and believes investing in public education is a positive for everyone. "Whether you have school-aged children or you don't or grandchildren, I believe in order for other business and people to look at our community to come to Florence to grow, you have to have great schools," Elder added.
One father of two high school students was at the forum. Jimmy Streett said he wants his concern heard. "One of my sons is special needs and he is going to South Florence because they have the best special needs program amongst the high schools in our district. What I would like to see is more funding if that's what it takes for more schools in the district where there is more parity for special needs instead of children going from one side of the district to the other," said Streett. "I know funding is tough and the school board does what they can, but I want them to know the need is there."
All of the renovations are expected to take 8 to 9 years to complete and would happen simultaneously.
The Florence One school board says it will take all of the input from the public forum and present it during this Thursday's regular scheduled school board meeting to decide what the next step will be regarding the referendum.