South Carolina spending hundreds of millions of dollars help schools with aging infrastructure

Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 6:28 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2022 at 8:56 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - As the Saluda County School District educates future generation of Tigers, schools like Saluda Elementary are hampered by aging infrastructure of the past.

For starters, there’s the tight cafeteria that can barely squeeze in five classes at lunchtime, the wires held up by zip ties in the hallways, and the boiler rooms that flood with a good rain.

The oldest part of the building went up in 1950, and staff say it is well past its prime.

“The infrastructure is to the point now that it’s almost impossible to upgrade our facilities to be cost-effective right now,” Saluda Superintendent Dr. Harvey Livingston said.

But in Saluda County, the tax base isn’t there to afford major renovations and construction, a problem that plagues school districts in South Carolina’s poorer, rural areas.

“A millage tax in some of our poorest counties only brings in $20,000, and in our richest counties, it brings in $2 million,” South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said. “So you can tell how difficult it is to build a school.”

Now the state Department of Education is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to help these schools out.

The department worked with the state’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office to rank every school district based on need, using their per capita incomes, index of tax-paying ability of the school district, and index of tax-paying ability of the county.

It found those with the most need, in order, were Allendale, Bamberg 2, Dillon 3 (Latta), Bamberg 1, Lee, Barnwell 19 (Blackville-Hilda), Barnwell 29 (Williston-Elko), Saluda, Dillon 4, and Hampton. Beginning July 1, the two Bamberg districts will be consolidated, as will the two Barnwell districts.

Spearman’s staff looked at those 10 districts first, then expanded it to the 25 neediest, and consulted vendors to assess school facilities to determine how the state will distribute money.

“We will go right up the list in those and looking at our top-priority need. Now this is not taking care of everything in those districts, but we are trying to help on their No. 1 priority need in facilities,” Spearman said, adding the cost to make infrastructure fixes in every South Carolina school is “well over $1 billion, probably closer to $2 billion.”

So far, more than $15 million is heading to Dillon 3 and 4, and on Thursday, the department announced $38 million will go to Saluda schools.

“$38 million is going to go a tremendous way to improve our facilities in Saluda County Schools. We’re a poor, rural district, do not have a very strong tax base, so every dime we can get from the state is going to be huge for us,” Livingston said following the announcement at Saluda Elementary, where he was joined Spearman, district staff, school board members, and members of the Saluda County delegation in the General Assembly.

The Department of Education has received $100 million from the General Assembly in the current state budget for these projects, and it is allocating $40 million of its remaining pandemic relief money from the federal government toward them as well.

While lawmakers are still finalizing the next budget, Spearman said they anticipate receiving at least another $100 million next year, an appropriation that could be as much as $150 million.

“It has been 70 years since we’ve done anything of this significance,” Spearman said.

In Saluda County, their plan includes tearing down the elementary school and combining it with the nearby primary school into a new K-5 school with a new building. With their $38 million, leaders also have their sights set on building a new wing at Hollywood Elementary School and constructing a career and technology wing at Saluda Middle School and Saluda High School.

To receive this money from the state, districts have to get on board with potential consolidations the Department of Education calls for and put some of their own money in as well. Those dollars could come from a bond referendum on the ballot, money districts have obtained in federal pandemic relief, or elsewhere.

Districts also must select a building design from among the prototype plans narrowed down by the Department of Education, which Spearman said will keep them from having to spend additional money on architectural plans.

Livingston said it’ll be worth it for the county’s students and its taxpayers.

“Our students deserve the same opportunities and same buildings that students across the state have, and this $38 million will just make a world of difference for our students for generations to come,” he said.

Spearman, who is not running for re-election this year as state superintendent, believes these appropriations from the General Assembly should be recurring and has proposed the state establish an “infrastructure bank” from which districts could borrow money for school infrastructure projects.

“Some could pay it back; some may not be able to pay it back,” she said. “But it would be a revolving fund that’s not just for the poorest districts in the state because the fast-growing districts have a tremendous burden too.”

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