Politics & Government

York School Board: Candidates debate approaches to growth

YORK -- Growing enrollment and how to pay for it were the top issues discussed at Monday night's York school district candidates forum.

The four candidates for two vacancies on the York School Board took turns answering questions submitted by the audience of about 30 people at Cotton Belt Elementary School. Incumbent Shirley Harris and challenger Jack Heniford are vying for the district's at-large seat, while York residents Jessica Lynn and Mike Smith are running for Seat 2, vacated this fall by Bob Hall. Hall is retiring after 16 years on the school board.

Most of the forum, sponsored by the Greater York Chamber of Commerce, was spent discussing topics related to property tax changes and the district's recent decision to consider building a new high school, put ninth grade back into high school, and change H.C. Johnson Middle School to an elementary school.

Harris, an eight-year board veteran and retired York schoolteacher, said the top issue facing York schools is financial responsibility.

She said she is concerned about the district's financial future because the state Legislature transferred funding for school operating costs from residential property taxes to a higher sales tax. Harris said she has criticized the change and wants school funding left in the hands of local boards.

"It's being taken away from us at such a fast pace that I'm plum scared," Harris said. "I don't think it's a very good idea."

Harris said the change in school funding means the district will have to watch its spending as it considers building new schools. She said debate about potential sites for a new high school should largely be dictated by cost and community feedback.

"If I had my druthers, and we had all the money we needed, then I'd put it right in the middle. But that's not going to happen y'all," she said. "It's up to the community now to say to the school board, 'We like this. We don't like that."

Heniford said growth is the biggest hurdle facing the school district. The retired college professor and Charlotte schoolteacher said his experiences offer insight into the district's needs. Running for office is a way for him to give back to the community.

Heniford said the district needs to be cautious as it learns more about the property tax change. He mentioned the state lottery as a possible source of alternate revenue.

"We need to look at the issues of growth, population change, where to put new schools and how to pay for them," he said. "If we can continue to do those things successfully, we'll have a good school system."

The district's proposal to build a new high school and remodel several other buildings is a "stop-gap measure," Heniford said, but he supports the plan overall.

In the Seat 2 campaign, Lynn said a new high school is needed.

"I think it is absolutely necessary to make sure our ninth-graders are put back in high school," Lynn said about the proposed building plan. "I think that option, in concept, is very good."

Lynn, a York Comprehensive High School graduate who spent several years teaching English in China and now works as a graphic designer, said the district needs to look at ways to become more efficient in light of the tax change. Because local boards wil no longer set residential property tax levies for operating expenses, Lynn said cutting waste is important.

"We always spend more money than we need to spend," Lynn said, citing neon lights in the high school cafeteria's upgrade as an example. "I wonder where else that money could have gone."

Smith, a YCHS alum and 19-year employee of York Electric Co-op, said he wants to make sure all options have been reviewed before endorsing any type of building plan. He said the burden on taxpayers, available infrastructure and steps to lower teacher-student ratios must be considered before building.

"If that's what is takes, then yes, I am for it," he said, adding while district property near Lincoln Road and S.C. 5 Bypass has good road access, plus water and sewer, that doesn't mean it should be the only location considered. "I'm also in favor of moving it to a central location for the folks in Hickory Grove and Sharon."

Smith agreed with the others about concern over tax reform. He said while the reform will send money to poor districts that need assistance, the state should revisit the issue from a long-term view.

"York is going to lose a lot of funding over the years," Smith said. "I just hope they (state lawmakers) look at the bigger picture down the road."

Voters in the York school district will choose two of the candidates Nov. 7. Incumbent Betty Johnson who is running unopposed for Seat 4.