More on Greenville Plan

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a multi-part series of interviews conducted between Courier staff reporter Nicole Daughhetee and SDPC board trustee Jim Shelton, a former board chair.

When I was a freshman in high school, I remember one of my teachers (and it bugs me no end that I cannot remember which class this was for) showed us the film All the President’s Men. The film chronicled Washington, D.C., journalists who investigated, uncovered and reported The Watergate Scandal that caused Richard Nixon’s presidency to crack and crumble and crash down around him.
That film inspired me as a writer. Jim Shelton is not my equivalent of Woodward and Bernstein’s “Deep Throat” — we aren’t meeting in secretive, darkened parking lots, and I do not have to protect my source, risking jail time or some other legal penalties. Still, there is something every bit as intriguing and exciting as I listen to Shelton’s story unfold.
Although I was not covering the SDPC meetings at the time the Greenville Plan was made public, I can’t help but picture an image of an iceberg in my mind as I listen to Shelton speak, and be reminded that I am gleaning that 7/8ths worth of information under the surface to which the public was not privy.
At the same time that the School District of Pickens County had opted for The Greenville Plan as a funding source for its building program, there was a group down in Colleton County, whose school board had opted for the same plan, that brought a lawsuit against the school district. It was currently pending before the S.C. Supreme Court, and a ruling was expected before the end of the year.
The significance of this tidbit of information, Shelton informed me, was that the ruling expected before the year’s end was conveniently the expiration date for the Greenville Plan being a viable option for school districts and school funding for debt service and building plans.
““I found it difficult to gather any significant information that was pro or con about the Greenville Plan,” Shelton said about the time between the Monday meeting at the McNair Law Office until the following Monday, which is when the board was supposed to meet. As a new board member, Shelton was grappling with everything that had just taken place.
“Most people I talked to, and these were people I trusted, would give an opinion, but there wasn’t any meat to it. And then of course the phone starts ringing,” said Shelton. “I remember keeping a tally sheet on my desk of who was for it and who was against it. I took 72 calls, and 35 of the calls were for it and 37 of the calls were against it. People were evenly divided. Very evenly divided.”
Shelton had ample opinions, but no tangible answers to the questions looming in his mind. His primary concern was how the Greenville Plan would impact the tax base in Pickens County from then until 25 years down the road when the debt is finally paid off. Shelton’s concern was the reality of how everyday, ordinary, working-class people in Pickens County would be affected.
“We weren’t given any information about the long-term impact,” said Shelton. “Again, there wasn’t enough information to say this is the greatest thing in the world, but the nagging doubt in the back of my mind was, and I had campaigned for this, the need for upgrades and improvement in the physical condition and location of our schools.”
Even the casual observer could drive by a school and see that there were old buildings with both obvious and not-so-obvious structural concerns. Moreover, gazing to the right or the left, one could clearly see veritable cities of portables next to the schools.
“That there was a need for schools, to me, was not even an argument,” said Shelton. “It was there. The eyes could see it. But was this the way to do it? I don’t know.”
Many people, I’m certain, are familiar with the saying that you can’t put the cart before the horse. However, Shelton says that was exactly what was going on within the district at the time the Greenville Plan was adopted.
Simply put, the district secured a funding plan and presented, to the public, a Powerpoint presentation that showed a building plan that said X number of dollars was going to be spent for attendance areas, for new high schools, new elementary schools, renovations and upgrades in different places, all of which rolled up to a number of $315 million.
“Let’s look at the $315 million again, because the $315 million is a significant number,” said Shelton. “ $315 million. Why was it $315 million? Why was that number chosen? If you look at the Powerpoint presentation from that evening, and you take all the numbers that were on there, it somehow miraculously rolls up to $315 million, and that’s not a coincidence.
“When you look at the existing millage value in 2006, which I think at that time we had already determined what the millage value was, but there is still some fluctuation from one year to the next, the available debt service millage would enable the school district to raise funds between $315 million and $345 million. They weren’t sure exactly where it was going to fall, and so the resolution was worded to allow a range from $315 million to $345 million. Increase in the mill here — a decrease in a discount premium or an interest rate on the other side would cause movement. And when you’re dealing with large sums of money, a small movement is a significant amount of funds.”
It is public knowledge that Shelton abstained from the vote that cemented The Greenville Plan as the funding source for the current SDPC building plan. What hasn’t been public knowledge, up to this point, is why Shelton abstained from the vote.
“The reason I abstained was that there was an internal conflict with me,” he said. “I wanted the schools — no question about it. I’m not sure I wanted that plan. And I sure as the Dickens didn’t want to pay for it this way. This, to me, was not the way you raise funds.
“Now in hindsight I can see that my abstention there was probably a wise thing. Two weeks later, when I was able to get more information, I would have voted no.”
It became apparent to Shelton, going forward, that the SDPC didn’t have a building plan. They had a means to finance a building plan, but they didn’t have a building plan.
“There was nothing out there,” said Shelton.