School board OKs budget

Employees get raises; Clemson TIF issue settled

COUNTY — The School District of Pickens County’s Board of Trustees approved the district’s 2014-2015 budget and a settlement in a long-fought lawsuit with the City of Clemson on Monday night.

In the budget, which received third and final reading, certified employees will receive a 2 percent increase through the STEP program. Non-certified employees will also get a 2 percent increase.

The board approved the budget with a 6-0 vote.

Both the school board and Pickens County Council voted Monday night to agree to a settlement in the tax increment financing (TIF) suit with Clemson.

Although details of the settlement were not available at press time, school board chairman Alex Saitta said the agreement will be beneficial to all three parties.

County Council and the school board filed separate lawsuits against Clemson in 2012 regarding the TIF redevelopment agreement the parties originally entered into in 1998. The plan, which isn’t scheduled to expire until 2017, called for the TIF district to include the downtown area and properties along U.S. highways 123 and 76, as well as S.C. Highway 93.

While the TIF has generated $10.7 million since 1999, county and school officials argued that Clemson has generated tax revenues enabling the city to expand City Hall and construct the downtown parking deck and Gateway Village, among other projects. County officials say the county has lost more than $1 million in annual revenue in recent years due to receiving tax revenues from TIF parcels at 1998 rates.

But Clemson officials point out that the county and school board have also reaped financial rewards from TIF since taxable property values in the city have increased by $699 million since 1998. That amount includes $573 million that occurred outside the TIF district that, according to the city, benefits Pickens County and the School District of Pickens County. City officials also say the school district has experienced a $4.7 million increase in tax revenue received from city residents.

Clemson mayor J.C. Cook said last year that TIF has made a positive impact throughout Pickens County, pointing out that only 16 percent of the development that has taken place occurred inside the city.

Attorneys for the county and school board said Clemson had an obligation to notify them anytime any alterations took place in the projects. But attorney Frank Gibbes, representing Clemson, said TIF money could be used to pay bond debt and redevelopment and that there was nothing in the TIF statute preventing the city from spending above the cap, only that an estimate was required.

Last month, judge Ned Miller issued a 31-page order in which he said any amounts in Clemson’s Tax Increment Finance fund that exceeds the amounts needed to service Clemson’s TIF bonds are “surplus funds.” Miller then ruled that Clemson must return those funds to the county treasurer for redistribution among the city, county and school district on an annual basis.

However, the judge ruled that surplus amounts received prior to fiscal year 2011-12 would not be required to be returned.

Saitta said things are looking better for the school board as a result of a change in attitude when it comes to TIFs, particularly politically.

“Years ago, surplus buildings were just given away,” Saitta said. “Give away this building for free, and you can get their support in November.”

Saitta guessed that by not giving property away, challenging TIF districts when they expired and other more aggressive actions, the board has accounted for around $7 million in extra revenue in recent years.

East End Elementary gets school choice

East End Elementary, the last elementary school in Pickens County not open to school choice, was approved for it with a 6-0 vote by the school board Monday night.

Saitta expressed concerns that many students are already choosing not to attend McKissick Elementary.

“At some point, we really need to look at that,” Saitta said. “We need to make McKissick more attractive. If you are going to have choice and let students go where they want to go, you can’t have one school that is attractive and another that is not.”

Board member Judy Edwards pointed out that the district policy says choice is only granted if there is room.

Saitta said McKissick probably received the best renovation in the district, but perhaps needs to be remarketed.

C-3 Program meets needs

Ken Hitchcock, director of the district’s C-3 program, spoke about his program’s success at Monday’s meeting. C-3 is the district’s dropout prevention program put in place last year after the closing of the Simpson Center. C-3 stands for “college, career and citizenship.”

The program has an academic base, instead of a discipline base, Hitchcock said.

“The focus of C-3 is to build the self-esteem of these students who are potential dropouts,” he said.

Students begin in the program as early as the eighth grade. Often when a child gets old enough to legally drop out of school, “they can see the light at the end of a tunnel” and stay in to graduate, Hitchcock said.

Saitta said he was pleased with the C-3 program but was concerned that some students might not fit into the program.

“I’m concerned that a kid who is not well-behaved will not have a home in our system,” he said.

Board member Brian Swords warned that doing more could be “crossing over into the gray area of raising children.”

Saitta said that by and large he felt the program’s results have been very positive.

Greg Oliver of The Journal in Seneca contributed to this article.