Florence One principals address facility needs with lawmakers

March 5, 2019

FLORENCE, S.C. – State Reps. Terry Alexander and Jay Jordan got a firsthand look at the needs of one Florence One school Monday morning.

After the $198 million bond referendum failed to pass last Tuesday by an overwhelming margin, Briggs Principal Tara Newton extended an invitation to the local legislative delegation and Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela to tour her school to see the needs of the school for themselves. Alexander, the Democratic representative from House District 59, and Jordan, the Republican representative from House District 63, arrived shortly after 8 a.m. Monday.

State Rep. Phillip Lowe toured the school on Saturday.

Several principals from schools throughout the district also attended the meeting. Florence One Schools Board Chairman Barry Townsend and a representative from Students First also attended the meeting.

Newton first held the meeting outside of the main building at Briggs to show Jordan and Alexander what some of the students must go through each day to get to and from class each day. It was approxiamtely 48 degrees at 9 a.m. Monday. Later, the meeting moved into the school’s library.

Jordan asked each of the principals present how many mobiles they had at their schools.

After the principals replied, Jordan called mobiles a safety and health issue.

By phone, Lowe said he also saw the need to remove the mobiles and make schools into one building.

A part of the bond money was to be used to construct new middle schools to replace Southside and Williams. By constructing the middle schools, the district would have been able to relocate sixth-grade classes from the elementary schools to the middle schools, eliminating the need for mobiles at both middle and elementary schools. Renovations at the three high schools would have eliminated mobiles from those schools as well.

From the question about mobiles, the meeting moved quickly into a way for the educators present to express their frustrations about the bond proposal’s failure and Florence One’s facilities needs.

Royall Elementary Principal Julie Smith said the message from the voters to educators was “disheartening” regardless of the voters’ intent.

“Why is it OK for Florence to have to make do?” she asked. “I don’t want to be part of this if that many people don’t understand that we need to do a better job.”

Alexander countered that the voters simply did not want to pay an increase in property taxes.

Lowe was the focus of much of the frustration from the educators.

Alexander described Lowe as “muddying the waters” to make it appear as if there was another option available to the school board when, in reality, that option did not exist.

Lowe said that he had responded to repeated requests as to whether a penny sales tax was possible. He said he had looked into it and found that it was possible. He added that some members of the community might have seen that and determined that they preferred a sales tax to a property tax.

The option relates to the use of Education Capital Improvements Sales and Use Tax Act to implement a penny sales tax within the county to fund educational improvements.

Such an option would appear to be difficult to implement. First, Florence County does not qualify under the provisions of the act, and an exception would need to be created within the act to allow the county to submit another referendum to voters.

Jordan said such an exception would need to be voted on by the full bodies of the S.C. House of Representatives and the Senate.

Alexander expressed skepticism that the majority-Republican bodies would be willing to pass a law that called for the option to increase taxes.

In addition, the exceptions that were created by the General Assembly have been challenged in court, and no special exceptions have been created since that case and no county that wasn’t already exempted has attempted to use the exceptions since.

A Facebook post attributed to Lowe indicated that the legal staff at the Statehouse was confident that they could draft an exception that would stand up in court.

Another complication relating to the potential for a penny tax is that the county is currently using its penny sales tax, and there is legislation in the General Assembly supported by Wukela that would allow cities to implement their own penny sales tax. A provision in that legislation would only allow two pennies and not three.

An additional complication is that the sales tax probably would have to be issued all over the county, meaning Florence One wouldn’t receive all of the funds.

Newton also asked which schools would receive priority if such a sales tax were enacted.

However, the city penny legislation must make its way through the legislative process and be signed by the governor. An ordinance must be enacted by the city council, and a referendum must be approved by the city’s residents.

Newton said Lowe asked her Saturday to trust him regarding the funding for improvements in Florence One Schools.

By phone, Lowe said that his role in the facilities push would be, if politically possible, to pass legislation that may create a needed exemption for Florence One. He added that ultimately it was the board of trustees who are responsible for school facilities.

Another source of frustration for the educators was that certain elected officials — they did not specify who — did not publically come out in support of the referendum.

Alexander pointed out that he had come out in support of it.

Wukela’s failure to attend Monday’s meeting was another source of frustration.

Wukela emailed his response Monday afternoon to the Morning News.

“I received an invitation to this meeting on Friday, March 1, 2019, for a meeting today,” he said. “As you can imagine, my schedule is fairly heavy and I had scheduling conflicts.

“However, if the purpose of the meeting, as indicated in their email, was to make me aware of the conditions of the schools, it was unnecessary. I have sons at Savannah Grove Elementary; Williams Middle School; and a son who just finished Southside. All three schools have mobile units; all three schools are in deplorable condition; and the School District has promised, and voted, to rebuild all three schools under their pay-as-you-go method; which they have now apparently abandoned. In fact, the School District held a groundbreaking which I attended a year ago for Southside and no discernible progress has been made on the school’s construction to date.

“Further, I am not sure what role the District expects the City of Florence to play in the funding of school construction; particularly after 75% of the City’s residents, (including 62% of those voting at the Briggs Precinct), recently expressed strong opposition to the School District’s referendum.

“I will say that three years ago the City and [Francis Marion] University entered into a partnership with the School District toward the renovation of McClenaghan and Poynor downtown for which the City borrowed $12 Million; and the School District has yet to begin construction on those buildings either.

“Therefore, my scheduling conflicts notwithstanding, I am not convinced a meeting with the School District this morning would have been very productive.”

Later, Jordan and Alexander were asked what the educators should do now to facilitate improvements.

Jordan and Alexander suggested working with the city council and county council to craft a plan to benefit each within the penny revenues available.

A meeting has been tentatively scheduled for all concerned at 6 p.m. March 18 at West Florence High School.