PICKENS COUNTY — A building project that provided the district with new schools and renovations is now causing some division among some school board trustees.
The building fund has produced nearly $13 million in surplus money, which was recently slated to be returned to the taxpayers after a board decision. A vote last week to spend more than $3.5 million of those remaining funds caused a stir to ensue.
“I feel like if we don’t protect it, it’s not going to be there,” said Trustee Jimmy Gillespie. “I really think we ought to pay down debt with whatever is left of (the $13 million). That’s why I voted the way I did. The building fund is big enough.”
“I know that money is already there, but we’re just adding to it,” he said.
Board Chairman Alex Saitta is also against more spending.
“What I suspect is happening is that, even after $375 million, you start to run out of money,” said Saitta. “When you look at the audit in the detailed notes, you can see the total debt level of the school district. In 2010 it was $348.3 million. In 2011 it was $350.1 million, and this year it’s $352.7 million. The debt level is still rising believe it or not.”
“It’s wonderful to give all these things to the children, but they’re not gifts, nor are they being paid for right now,” he continued. “They’re being paid for in the future by us and them. This is a 25-year loan. Not only are they going to have to pay for this out of cash from their own pockets, but there’s not going to be as many job opportunities (in the future) because the tax rates are going to be higher than they should have been otherwise.”
Trustee Judy Edwards, who voted for the new spending, says she doesn’t feel that the district is going into any more debt.
“My feeling about this $13 million is that it was interest that was accrued on our loan, therefore we’re not really going into debt anymore,” said Edwards. “It was interest that we earned, and if we can use that without raising taxes, which we can, we can complete our projects to the extent that we want and that we feel like we have a need for.”
The new spending of $3.5 million is slated to go to roof repairs at Edwards Middle School, and technology updates throughout the district. Saitta says he isn’t sure why the roof was not fixed during the renovation.
“It’s nearly seven times the amount of Oconee (County’s) debt level,” said Saitta. “Every district can say they have a need that wasn’t satisfied during the building program,” said Saitta. “Pickens Elementary was promised a renovation and got a $2 million lipstick. The school now looks every bit as old as 1962. Easley (High) got a $62 million building, and 98 percent of what they wanted, they got. My opinion is that the other 2 percent is something they should just live with.”
When you look at the other districts, all are in need,” Saitta continued. “But, sooner or later you run out of money, and you put your children in enough debt. My opinion is that we’ve spent enough on the building program. We’ve got the money left, so let’s do our best to spend it wisely and close it out.”
Saitta says it is simply a matter of knowing when to stop.
“The problem with government is that when you’re spending other people’s money, you don’t do what you would do with your own money,” said Saitta. “Putting other people in debt is easy to do. We have an opportunity to pay down some of this debt. You’re always going to have needs, but most people just live with it at this point.”