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S.C. Schools Await Ability to Build Interest-Free

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A South Carolina bill heading to the governor's desk could help rebuild dilapidated schools across the state, including a middle school that has become a symbol of the nation's education construction woes.

"This could be the answer to prayers for us," said Dillon 2 Superintendent Ray Rogers. "I thought, 'Where's the punch line? Somebody's pulling an April Fool's joke on me in May.' I'm elated for the kids. It makes me feel good to know help's on the way."

The measure passed by lawmakers Thursday as the legislative session drew to an end allows districts to borrow up to $20 million interest-free to build or renovate schools. It gives the state Education Department the authority to divvy up funds from a new type of bond created by the federal stimulus package, which allows lenders to receive a federal tax credit equal to the interest they would otherwise receive.

Rogers said his district would use the interest-free bonds to replace J.V. Martin Junior High. President Barack Obama brought attention to the school Feb. 24 in his first address to Congress when he read a letter from eighth-grader Ty'Sheoma Bethea asking for help replacing her run-down school. The original part — a former church — dates to 1896, and the campus includes 30-year-old mobile homes used as classrooms.

The bill is on its way to Gov. Mark Sanford's desk. An outspoken critic of federal bailouts, the Republican governor has refused to request $700 million targeted for the state over two years to plug budget holes, largely in education.

Spokesman Joel Sawyer would not say Friday whether the governor would sign the school construction bill, saying it's one of many bill passed in the last week of the session that the governor is reviewing. But unlike the $700 million, which is now the subject of several lawsuits, Sanford has no control over the bonds. And a veto would likely be easily overridden, given the bill's overwhelming support.

Under the measure, South Carolina districts can apply for a piece of $131 million in interest-free loans this year and next, with 60 percent of it designated to poor, rural schools, and 40 percent to ready-to-go projects. The allotments are capped at $20 million for poor, rural schools and $10 million for "shovel ready" work.

At the top of a priority list for poor districts are Clarendon 3 (Turbeville), Lexington 4 (Swansea), Dillon 3 (Latta), Barnwell 19 (Blackville), and Dillon 1 (Lake View).

Dillon 2 is No. 14, but chances are good under the second, shovel-ready category: Plans for a new J.V. Martin have already been crafted.

"As soon as we get the money, we're ready to go," Rogers said.

Dillon County voters approved a 1-cent sales tax increase in December 2007 for school construction in the county's three school districts. But when it was time to borrow, "the bottom fell out of the bond market," Rogers said. "The buying power had gone to just about nothing."

The federal stimulus automatically allots Charleston County $13.5 million in the bonds, and Greenville County $15 million, under a provision for the nation's largest districts with many students living in poverty. They are likely to qualify for more the next year.

The state legislation was needed to calm bond lawyers' worries and make the bonds more sellable, since the federal bill didn't lay out how a state could allocate its share of the $22 billion, said Betsy Carpentier, a deputy superintendent at the Education Department, who's tracking education stimulus money.

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