A bond referendum to spend $109 million on a new Laurens District 55 High School, which also became a flashpoint for local residents acrimoniously divided on the issues of a new high school and its high cost, failed overwhelmingly Tuesday.
Seventy-eight percent of the 8,520 people who voted on the referendum voted against it. The no votes won by a margin of 6,559 to 1,961.
The results of the referendum will remain unofficial until certified by the S.C. Election Commission on Friday.
The atmosphere at the Laurens County Courthouse on the Historic Square turned festive as results came in, and a group of voters against the referendum realized their “Vote No” campaign would be successful.
“The main thing I have emphasized from the beginning is that it’s the education of the children, not the buildings,” said Keith Tripp of the Common Sense Coalition for Better Schools.
Tripp, who is also chairman of the Laurens County Republican Party, said he is not interested in discussing another plan for a new school building.
“The next step is for the school board and the administration and to leave it alone and allow for the community to heal from some of the things that have been going on,” Tripp said.
The voters against the referendum spoke loudly. Nearly 37 percent (36.8 percent) of registered voters turned out to vote on the referendum. In comparison, 26 percent of eligible voters countywide voted in the 2016 GOP State Primary Election.
While the mood turned festive at the historic courthouse, Laurens District 55 Superintendent delivered a somber speech to supporters of the referendum.
“Several months ago, we embarked on a journey to bring a brighter future to the children of Laurens County School District 55,” Peters said. “We never imagined it would be as divisive an issue as it became. While we are very disappointed with the outcome of today’s referendum, there is a greater concern. We feel compelled to call on all the leaders of our communities to come together to find ways to heal the wounds of division that have become so evident.
“Black, white, Hispanic, or other; Republican, Democrat, Tea Party or Independent; we all have a civic duty that has been ignored for too long. Too many stand rigid in their idealism and reluctant to compromise in fear of losing their own relevance. Our founding fathers created this nation through civil discourse and a desire to find common ground for the greater good. A pattern that, until recent decades, has held our nation in good stead and helped build opportunity for the people this nation served.”
The Laurens County District 55 Board of Trustees initially planned to put the referendum to a vote in May, but met immediate resistance from individuals and groups who said the $109 million price tag for the school to replace the 50-year-old LDHS would cause property taxes to go up too much.
Those supporting the referendum formed their on non-profit coalition. The Vote Yes, Kids 1st group, chaired by District 55 Board Member Terri Martin, launched its official campaign for the bond referendum in mid-August but never got the traction it needed.
Referendum supporters carried only three of the 29 precincts – Laurens 1 (110-92), Laurens 2 (80-19) and Laurens 4 (128-61).
Meanwhile, those against the referendum won by large margins in Hickory Tavern (707-46), Princeton (78-3) and Trinity Ridge (469-138), where nearly half of those registered (44 percent) turned out to vote.
Peters spoke in general terms about the future of education in the county. He did not offer a new plan for construction in the district, but did call for “civility and constructive dialogue.”
“Now, it is imperative that we, once again, find that common ground and build a brighter bridge to the future,” Peters said. “In the weeks ahead, we will be calling on our communities to become true partners in the future of LCSD 55. It is a future that must include greater support, greater access, and greater opportunities for all the children we serve.”
Tripp said the wounds in the community over the referendum will need time to heal.
“If the board has any interest in restoring some harmony to the community, they should stay away from it for at least a year,” he said.