Originally created 10/03/00

New panel to debate bond issue



MCCORMICK, S.C. - The school facilities referendum that twice backfired here is not dead yet.

The local school board has appointed a panel to decide how best to handle the unpopular issue.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force met for the first time last week, but could recommend something to the board by Jan. 1. John Spence, a resident of Savannah Lakes Village, is leading the group. He has lived for three years in the community of wealthy retirees that got out the no vote in February when 1,422 people rejected a plan to build a new elementary school and athletic facilities.

When the referendum failed, it meant elementary school pupils were stuck in a facility built in the late 1920s. It is a school whose foundation has been weakened by termites. The school doesn't meet fire codes or federal regulations for the disabled, and its playground is dotted with portable classrooms.

Mr. Spence knows his job as chairman of the group that eventually will ask taxpayers for their money is a "fairly substantial undertaking."

It involves "building a consensus" among those who think academic improvements come before new schools and those who think new schools mean economic opportunities for a county that is starting to grow again.

Then there's the hard reality: McCormick County is one of the poorest in the state. It has a high percentage of residents who can't afford to own property, so they don't pay property taxes. And nearly 18 percent of the county's households don't have telephones.

"If this referendum is going to work, the entire community has to embrace it," Mr. Spence said.

Meanwhile, some of the same folks who voted against the $10.4 million bond issue are retaliating by backing four candidates for school board in the November elections.

Bill Edmondson, also a resident of Savannah Lakes, and others who make up the McCormick County Advisory Group for Quality Education, are behind the push.

"McCormick's schools can achieve excellence," Mr. Edmondson said. "And the first step is with new leadership. In the past, residents of this county rarely questioned their elected officials, assuming whatever they decided must be the right path to follow.

"This county has a generation of children who are not academically prepared," he said. "The Board of Trustees and school administrators should be held accountable for past decisions ... and future decisions."

One county away in Abbeville, board members are asking the clergy to help get people to the polls when voters there decide on an $8.5 million bond issue next month to improve school buildings. The first referendum in June failed largely because only 10 percent of voters cast their ballots.

Reach

Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.