Revised on: 11.9.2018 at 10:22 a.m.
Posted on: 11.7.2018 at 12:11 a.m.
By Diana Matthews
Leaders of the county and city school systems and the community college all expressed disappointment with Tuesday’s defeat of the quarter-cent sales tax increase. If passed, the tax would have generated an estimated $1 million annually to be used on local school facilities.
Several referendum backers said they hope to try again to pass the tax and will continue to educate voters about its advantages in the meantime.
“We are disappointed by the results of the quarter-cent sales tax vote because it would have gone directly to the education of our children,” said Jonathan Williams, interim superintendent of the Columbus County Schools. “However, there is a solid base of support for the referendum and hopefully we can find ways to build upon this. We are deeply grateful to everyone who turned out to vote.”
The county schools are embarking on two ambitious building projects and face about a million dollars’ worth of hurricane damage repairs.
“We are disappointed but encouraged by the vote on the 1/4 penny sales tax,” said Southeastern Community College President Tony Clarke. “If only 831 voters had changed their vote, the 1/4 penny sales tax would have passed. We’ll be working with our partners in the county to determine our next steps. I do want to thank everyone who supported the 1/4 penny sales tax. The sales tax may not have passed, but the needs remain.”
Clarke said last month that the tax money would supplement funds already budgeted for improving the library, welding program, science labs and student services. By helping SCC train workers, “It will help us contribute to economic development,” he predicted.
“I’m disappointed in the results,” said Whiteville City Schools Superintendent Kenny Garland, “but the people have spoken.”
Garland believed that too few voters understand how limited the resources are for funding school construction and repair. “Buildings are the county’s responsibility, not the state’s,” he said.
Before the election, the boards of both public school systems and the community college issued pledges that they would use the money raised by the tax responsibly and would account every year for their expenses.
Carlton Prince, who was defeated Tuesday in his re-election bid to the city school board, called the vote against the school-funding referendum “a grave disappointment.
“I have often said the ¼-cent sales tax referendum was the most important item on the Nov. 6, 2018, ballot and pleaded for its approval,” Prince said Wednesday. “I see this as an essential step for progress that Columbus County has missed. How sad.”
Jonathan Medford of the Columbus Jobs Foundation called the defeat of the local use sales tax “a gut wrenching blow for our schools.” Medford led the “Vote Yes” campaign for the tax.
“It’s not every day you feel the weight of letting down every student, educator and property owner in Columbus County,” he wrote Wednesday to supporters of the referendum.
He said the Jobs Foundation, county commissioners and volunteers had run a good campaign but that they had faced an uphill battle, with “the single biggest hurdle” being the wording on the ballot, which did not mention education at all.
Across North Carolina, voters in 18 other counties had the same option on their ballots, Medford said. Ballots in all 19 counties used exactly the same generic wording dictated by the General Assembly. Although each county had the right to designate how the money raised would be used, they were not allowed to give voters that information on the ballot.
At least two counties appealed to the legislature to be allowed to explain on the ballot that the money would be used for education, Medford said. Both were denied permission to alter the wording.
Only four counties passed the referendum. Those were Graham, Moore, Swain and Stanly counties. In Stanly County the referendum passed on what Medford called “a razor-thin margin” after five previous failed campaigns.
The fact that 15 out of 19 counties rejected the tax showed that “It was obviously a ballot-wording problem,” he said.
The placement of the referendum at the end of a two-page ballot, following six “highly politicized” N.C. Constitutional amendments, was an additional disadvantage, Medford said. Pre-marked example ballots and slate cards handed out by Democratic campaigners at some locations urged voters to vote against all amendments. A lot of voters didn’t recognize that the referendum was a separate issue, Medford said.
He plans to “continue to fight to fund our schools,” he said, perhaps bringing the referendum up again in the 2020 primary.
“It’s really important to get in touch with your legislator — that would be Danny (Britt), Brenden (Jones) and now Carson (Smith) — and tell them ‘We really need this wording to be changed,” Medford said.
He said he would also like to “coordinate more with the local political parties to ensure their cooperation.”