The October 2010 Vote
By Alex Saitta
July 24, 2012
Iíve read the series of articles in the Pickens County Courier where Nicole Daughhetee and Jim Shelton recounted the October 2010 vote to add a second middle school in Easley, and the explanation of why Mr. Shelton championed the project.
History -- $158 Million toÖ
To fully understand the story, we first have to recount the events leading up to October 2010.
When the county wide building program was put on the drawing board in 2005, Superintendent Dr. Mendel Stewart presented a $158 million plan. Once the school board got a hold of it, the plan was expanded to $178 million to insure all high schools would receive equal funding. Just before the plan was put to referendum, it was boosted to $197 million by adding a new Dacusville Elementary and sports facilities.
The referendum failed nearly 2 to 1.
History -- $197 Million toÖ
Instead of listening to the voters and working on one or two schools at a time, in 2006, Superintendent Dr. Lee DíAndrea put forth her $315 million version of the Greenville Plan. The school board approved it with only Oscar Thorsland and me voting against.
A few weeks later, seeing an opportunity to grab more money, the districtís bond offering was actually $336 million. Then at auction, the bondís interest rate was raised a bit, so the bond sale brought down $354 million.
After DíAndrea resigned, it was discovered the plan was way above budget. Cuts were made and the budget was officially raised to $365 million.
To give you a sense of how much the building program had grown, the turn-key cost for the Easley Library was nearly $10 million. The program had grown to the equivalent of building 36 new Easley libraries. Taxes were raised by 39 mills. The total debt obligation (principal plus interest owed) had grown from $38 million to $631 million.
October 2010 Vote ó To $374 Million:
Despite my arguments against adding to the program again, in October 2010 the board voted 7 to 1 to add a second middle school in Easley, to borrow another $9.1 million, expand the building program to $374 million and raise the property tax rate again. There is more to that aspect of the story too.
The Rising Tax Rate:
Looking back, before the Greenville Plan the tax rate was 19 mills in 2007. After the plan was passed, the tax rate rose to 58 mills in 2008. As more houses were built and property was added to the county tax rolls, the rate charged for each property started to fall, to 56 mills in 2009 and 50 mills in 2010 after the reassessment.
The district makes two payments each year on the Greenville Plan loan. Due to an accounting change, in 2011 the second payment was pushed 8 months into the future, into the following year. This lengthened the loan and shifted each of the future payments out 8 months.
As a result, in 2011 there was only going to be one loan payment required. The tax rate would have fallen from 50 mills in 2010 to 35 mills in 2011 and taxpayers would have received a tax break for that year.
Not so fast. The board saw this as an opportunity to borrow more money, so they borrowed the $9.1 million mentioned above, so again two payments had to be made in 2011. This new second payment stopped the tax rate from falling and killed your tax cut, and the board pushed the tax rate up higher to 52 mills in 2011. The rate increased to 54 mills in 2012.
Manipulation of Financial Statements:
Some have gone as far as trying to manipulate the building programís financial statement to make this all look better. As I mentioned, after the Oct 2010 vote, the cost rose to $374 million. In January of this year, suddenly, the cost on the building program statement fell to $369 million. Five million in spending from that Oct 2010 vote was removed.
Noticing that, I asked, where was the $5 million expense moved to? It wasnít. It was erased, Enron-style. I argued the books for 2010-11 had been closed for months, the external auditor certified that Oct 2010 transaction was accounted for correctly and the board voted late last year to accept the audit as the financial record for the 2010-11 year. In 2012, no one had the authority to monkey around with how that October 2010 transaction was accounted for. Realizing I had uncovered what was going on, the $5 million in spending reappeared on the statement the following month.
Manipulated Meeting Schedule:
By law whenever the district borrows or raises tax rates, the proposal requires three readings. Normally, those readings take place at monthly meetings like September, October and November. This proposal was pushed through at the September 27, 2010 meeting, and the special called meetings of October 4 and October 11. This limited the ability of public opposition to build because the public airing of the issue was squeezed from 3 months down to 3 weeks, and the latter two meetings (because they were special called meetings) did not allow public input.
In October 2010 there were 8 members on the school board. By law when 5 or more met, the meeting has to be open to the public. In June of that year when this idea was first being considered, the district and board leadership invited in the bond analyst to talk about future building needs (in addition to the building plan), and possible ways to fund it, through more borrowing. To keep these meetings private, three private meetings were held between the administration, and only 2 or 3 board members to keep the total under 5 board members. This way, the meetings didnít have to be open to the public and no minutes were kept.
This is the same shenanigans that went on before the Greenville Plan. Again, it was designed to keep the public from knowing what the district/ board leadership was up to and so public opposition would not build against their plan to more borrowing, spending and taxing in the name of buildings.
While the board of 2006 did this before the Greenville Plan and the board of 2008 did it before the second middle school in Easley vote, the board of 2010 doesnít do this kind of thing.
After Liberty Middle School, Gettys Middle faced the worst building problem in the county. Personally, I would have moved one attendence line and shifted 300 students from Gettys to Dacusville Middle. Those 300 students would have later went to Easley High. This would have made Dacusville Middle an average sized middle school and cut Getty's overcrowding significantly. It was a win-win.
Adding a second middle school in Easley was not a bad idea when taken in isolation. However, if this was the route to be taken, it should have been taken early in the plan. Not after $365 million(too much) was already spent on buildings.
The Greenville Plan was a plan to build new high schools; everything else was secondary. For that reason, top needs like Gettys Middle were ignored in the initial plan, and its fix later had to be tacked on to the plan at the expense of growing the plan's cost even more. After all that money was spent ($365 million), adding even more to the plan for a second middle school didn't make sense to me so I voted against it.
By the way, I have no idea where the district is going to find the $700,000 a year it will cost to run that second middle school in Easley once it opens.