Schools look to voters for exit from 'Corridor of Shame'

Dillon County voters go to the polls today to decide whether to infuse as much as $60 million into construction of public schools that serve Lake View, Latta and Dillon.

At issue is whether county residents support using money generated by a local one-penny-on-the-dollar sales tax to leverage loans for building new schools or additions in all three communities.

The centerpiece is a proposed middle school for Dillon 2, which uses a mixture of buildings that date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. J.V. Martin Junior High is featured prominently in a 2005 documentary about substandard conditions of rural schools along Interstate 95 in eastern South Carolina.

"We want to shed that stigma of being in the 'Corridor of Shame,'" said Carl Altman, who heads a committee that supports school construction. "I don't think I live in a corridor of shame. I'm happy and proud to live here."

The average age of schools across Dillon County is about 40 years. The last new school built was Dillon High, which opened in 1970.

Since 2003, Dillon County has collected an extra penny on the dollar in sales taxes to generate $11.7 million for various capital projects the county government asked voters to support in a referendum.

Collections have gone so well the county anticipates reaching its goal in mid-2008 two years ahead of schedule.

Enter the Dillon County Board of Education, which has struggled to help the three local school systems it oversees find a way to pay for school repairs and upgrades.

"You can't make these problems go away," said Richard Schafer, a prominent Dillon County businessman and county board chairman. "The state of South Carolina is not going to come in here and solve it for you."

Dillon County has high unemployment, low-wage jobs and widespread poverty, a recipe that makes raising property taxes specifically earmarked for school construction a difficult sell.

"The people of the county realize we have to do something with our schools," said Altman, who owns a health care/pharmaceutical business. "They are falling down."

• Population (2000): 30,984

• Unemployment rate (Oct. 2007): 9.9%

• Average monthly households receiving food stamps (Oct. 2007): 2,983

• Percentage of residents with a high school diploma or higher (2000): 60.7%

• Percentage of residents with four years of college or more (2000): 9.1%

• Percentage of children ages 5 to 17 living in poverty (2004): 29%

• Percentage of all residents living in poverty (2004): 22.2%

SOURCE: S.C. Budget and Control Board; S.C. Employment Security Commission; S.C. Department of Social Services