AIKEN --- New schools or new taxes? It's the $236 million question the Aiken County school board is asking voters to answer Tuesday.
It has been a generation since the board asked county residents for a bond issue, and board members are hoping residents approve the funding to upgrade six of the district's worst facilities.
The money would go toward building new versions of North Augusta High, Ridge Spring-Monetta Elementary/Middle, Silver Bluff Middle and Leavelle-McCampbell Middle, along with renovations at Aiken High and the Career and Technology Center.
A 2007 study from Columbia-based construction group M.B. Kahn said the district has more than $300 million in needs. Board members pursued the referendum after administrators said their $13 million-a-year revenue for cyclical facility needs wouldn't build even a new elementary school.
Election officials expect about 25 percent to 30 percent of voters to turn out Tuesday, which is typical in an off-season election, said Stuart Bedenbaugh, the executive director of Aiken County Registration and Elections. About 500 absentee ballots were cast by Friday, he said.
People on both sides of the issue say they want a resounding answer from the county on the investment, not a whimper from the few who remember to vote.
"I think apathy is going to be the thing that disappoints me the most," said Barry Adams, the chairman of the "Vote Yes for Kids" campaign, operated by the nonprofit Public Education Partners. "I wish 90,000 folks would go out and vote. Then we would know how the voters really felt. I'm afraid that traditionally there will not be a large turnout."
Debbie Nix, a small-business owner opposed to the bond issue, said her efforts have taught her to become involved in the process a lot sooner.
"It's been really interesting going door to door," said Nix, an Aiken High alumna. "There are a lot of people who are amazed and don't even know what's going on. People aren't as attentive as they used to be."
If the bond issue passes, the owner of a $100,000 home could expect to pay an additional $116 each year in taxes. A committee appointed by school board members would oversee project spending.
The election will cost about $40,000, according to Bedenbaugh.
The school district will also have to negotiate bond attorney and financial adviser fees if the issue passes, district comptroller Tray Traxler said. Interest on the bonds will add additional fees.
In an effort to save money on interest, the board has pursued $20 million in federal grants that would provide interest-free loans, saving about $50,000, said board member Richard Hazen.
He said low bond rates and construction costs make now the perfect time to build. He said he has been asked why projects haven't been bid yet.
"People are assuming we're issuing 20-year bonds," he said. "Instead we'll issue a series of bonds as we bid work."
The board opted not to spend the money on design concepts, which would have run about $1 million, on the chance the bond doesn't pass.
"It's not prudent for us to spend that money or buy that land yet," Hazen said. "But people want to know what they're getting."
Aiken County's tea party group and "Vote No" supporters say the unknowns have pushed them against the referendum.
"I'm not disagreeing that we don't have problems in the schools and that the schools don't need the money, but the board's not giving us full disclosure," Nix said.
"It's killing the small businesses," she said. "Aiken County's known for low taxes, but we'd like to keep it that way."
Adams said he understands the concerns of small business, but he sees it improving their livelihood over time.
"I think a number of small biz owners are understanding and realizing that if we have schools that are favorable to young families, the families are going to move in," he said. "If we have six new schools either being built or major renovations, that's a lot of construction that's going on and lots of jobs."