Open letter to Spartanburg District 7 residents who voted YES for the $185M construction bond on 15 March 2016
My letter is long, but I hope you take time to read it.
Isn’t it odd that there are millions of buildings all across the world MUCH older than Spartanburg High School in great condition, but somehow Terry Gilmer, Director of Maintenance, under the supervision of D7 Superintendent Dr. Booker, can’t seem to maintain SHS?
Humans have been plugging leaks in roofs, repairing drafty rooms and cleaning mold for thousands of years. It’s actually not that difficult. (Maybe someone needs to be fired for their incompetence.)
So the next question might be, “Why would they let the roof leak when the repair is easy?” The answer is because letting your current building fall into a state of disrepair is the best way to get a construction bond passed. That is straight from the School Board Association’s playbook.
OK, but why were Dr. Booker and the District 7 School Board campaigning so hard for a construction bond? For this answer, you must dig a bit deeper.
When you tally up the total for this bond package, it falls just shy of one half billion dollars. Yes, that’s just shy of ONE HALF BILLION DOLLARS. And there are many scoundrels lurking in the shadows behind Booker and the School Board who want a piece of that money.
For example, the no-bid architect firm that did the “facilities study” is the same firm controlling the entire project. They conclude we need a new school because that conclusion puts millions of dollars in their pocket. Actual engineers determined the complaints to be cosmetic, NOT structural, and easily remedied.
Then there’s the realtor, Andy Hayes, who stands to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in commission who is ON THE SCHOOL BOARD and voted in favor of placing the bond on the ballot, a DIRECT conflict of interest.
Then there’s Meg Clayton, married to the President of Clayton Construction, which has performed millions of dollars of construction for D7 already (By the way, they built the atrium but now there are complaints that it leaks) and stands to make millions more, who sits ON THE SCHOOL BOARD, a DIRECT conflict of interest. If you think being married to the President of Clayton Construction is not a conflict, well, she’s also an employee, a Clayton Construction Project Manager. She voted in favor of putting this referendum on the ballot.
It’s interesting that after Andy and Meg voted to place the bond on the ballot, Dr. Booker provided a letter stating that they were recusing themselves from further votes. News flash to Dr. Booker, you recuse yourself before the vote, not after. (Click for Booker’s recusal letter)
Dr. Booker might also be interested to know there is a specific procedure for recusal (Check the Board Rules), which he didn’t follow. First you disclose the reason for your recusal, and then you abstain from voting, and then you document the recusal in the minutes.
When the public found out about the conflicts of Andy and Meg, Dr. Booker declared that he has now made it all OK, because the real estate negotiations would be direct with the landowner, and Clayton Construction would no longer bid as general contractor.
Actually, that is a great deal for Andy. He won’t have to bother with the negotiations, but still gets his commission. Andy might call that a win/win.
Concerning Clayton Construction, a local resident involved in construction projects with Clayton told the opposition committee that Clayton will be involved as a subcontractor, and so even though they are not the general contractor, will still pocket millions of tax payer dollars. Do a search for Clayton Galleries from back in the early 80s. This is the same family.
Then there’s Dr. Thomas White, disgraced former D7 Superintendent. Many thought he retired, but he is still on the payroll as Assistant Superintendent of Planning. He is pulling the strings for this project and has been since at least as far back as March 2012.
Recall that Dr. White tried to funnel 325,000 of your hard earned tax dollars to his private country club so that he and his fellow club members could enjoy a better round of golf at local tax payer expense. (Click for country club scandal)
Search the internet for how school bonds are normally presented to the community. They are multi-year conversations that detail various choices and costs, detailed reports on school conditions, community growth, revenues, pros and cons weighed and debated. Then, and only then, are final plans drawn and voted upon. But none of that happened here.
Dr. White and Dr. Booker were hatching their scheme in secret. The opposition committee checked the D7 School Board minutes going back to 2013. There was not one single word about unrepairable conditions and a need for new schools, nor was there a peep about the plan for this gargantuan bond. In fact just the opposite. Shortly before, SCETV praised SHS for its cutting edge technology. (Click for SCETV report)
Then when they had everything in place, Dr. Booker, Dr. White and the D7 School Board sprang it on us in October 2015. During Dr. Booker’s October blitzkrieg he and his surrogates hit us with phony numbers such as $350,000 per year to use Wofford’s stadium. Untrue. He said maintenance for SHS was just a band aid and would cost one hundred million dollars for upkeep, also untrue. By the way, for less than twelve million dollars his plan converts SHS to a middle school, so obviously SHS is still OK as a school. We were told SHS was overcrowded, also not true.
The D7 School Board scheduled a quick special referendum vote in March 2016, hoping the public at large wouldn’t know about it and opposition would not have time to rally. Pure and simple voter suppression, another tactic straight from the School Board Association’s playbook. Schedule the vote in March when no one is paying attention.
This is exactly how the last big spending package was passed in March 1998 with less than six percent of the vote. The NAACP declared that special election a “travesty”. I agree.
Then there’s Laura Bauknight, former D7 School Board member who voted with Dr. White, Chip Hurst and Thomas McMeekin to bail out their private country club. She heads up the “vote yes” committee. Are you seeing a pattern here?
Then there’s the Cecil family, circulating letters on behalf of the “vote yes” committee. You may recall that when the plan was first announced that Dr. Booker called for the demolition of McCracken Middle School. Why would he do that since McCracken recently had millions of dollars of upgrades? It didn’t make sense and it outraged the community so Dr. Booker removed that part of his presentation.
But the question lingered, why in the world did Dr. Booker want to demolish McCracken?
The answer was provided by Les McMillan, owner of the architect firm and friend of the Cecil family. Turns out that the Cecil family owns a retirement home next door to McCracken. Cecil, a former D7 School Board Chairman, wants McCracken bulldozed so he can get his hands on the property. Les McMillan blurted it out during an opposition forum at the retirement facility.
My mom, and other attendees, heard him tell the residents that plans were in the works to expand the retirement community after they bulldozed McCracken and bought the property. He hoped that by sharing with them the plans for McCracken that they would vote YES. He couldn’t help himself and spilled the beans. The next day, the Cecil family put out a statement denying it.
The Cecil family in particular makes my blood boil. Way back in the 1970s the elder Cecil got himself on the airport commission, under the ruse to do good for the downtown airport. He promptly called for the closing of the primary runway. This OUTRAGED the local flying community. This was the best, safest runway. It had a precision approach (a very big deal for a community airport), making it much safer for pilots to land in bad weather.
Well, Cecil got it closed, and that put my father, who was a recreational pilot, and all other local pilots and their passengers, at much greater risk. But why did he do it? Because he wanted to develop property under the approach corridor, which he did. Bring up the name Cecil to any old timer pilot around here. Their blood will boil too. As a young man I recall hanging out at the airport with my father. I had never seen such anger. Everyone knew what Cecil was doing, but they were powerless to stop him.
For his own financial gain, Cecil put my father, Dr. D.C. Hull, and all others who flew into SPA at greater risk. And this is the same family trying to get their hands on the McCracken property. (Click for Cecil’s land deal)
Then there is the rest of the D7 School Board. You might think they would have a few questions when it comes to taxing their neighbors hundreds of millions of dollars. For example:
“Dr. Booker, why haven’t we heard about any of these problems before now?”
“Dr. Booker, why haven’t you done a better job maintaining SHS?”
“Dr. Booker, new high schools are built in growing, vibrant communities when the student population outgrows the current high school. But the SHS population is barely over half of what it was. There are no complaints of overcrowding. D7 revenues are shrinking and have been for many years. We don’t need, and can’t afford, new schools. Explain that please.”
“Dr. Booker, why do you keep saying it costs $350,000 per year to use Wofford’s stadium? That’s not true. I’ve seen the contract. We pay only $15,000 per game, with a $4,500 option to use the big screen, and we keep half of the ticket sales and concessions. That’s less than $150,000 per year. We have a great relationship with Wofford and our contract is good through 2031. Just financing the new stadium is well over $450,000 per year with several hundred thousand more for upkeep and the staff to maintain it. Why are you putting out this false narrative?” (Click for Wofford contract)
“Dr. Booker, tell me why spending hundreds of millions of dollars for these new schools will provide a better education. Please don’t use vague grandiose language. Be specific.”
“Dr. Booker, why haven’t you shown us projected D7 tax revenues and the repayment schedule?” (Click for D7 tax burden)
“Dr. Booker, I did some quick math and a 10 mill tax won’t pay back this debt, not even close. Would you explain that?”
“Dr. Booker, you’ve gone on and on about how SHS is outdated and we need to build a new one. Yet your plan is to continue using it as a Middle School. That makes no sense. Either it’s good enough or it’s not. Would you explain that?”
“Dr. Booker, since 2008, SHS has been awarded almost perfect scores in both Learning and Physical Environments, by those who know best, SHS teachers. Yet you keep talking about the terrible conditions at SHS. It doesn’t make sense. Explain that please.” (Click for SHS Report Cards)
“Dr. Booker, why are there no competing bids? And why does the architect firm have an exclusive contract?”
“Dr. Booker, why does the proposed high school cost almost $400 per square foot when other schools are built all across the southeast for less than half that? The price it outrageous. Explain that please.”
“Dr. Booker, why did you put Dr. White in charge of planning? Don’t you recall that he tried to funnel hundreds of thousands of our local tax dollars to his private country club? And now you’ve given him the responsibility for hundreds of millions of dollars? Why in the world would you do that?!”
“Dr. Booker, why do you keep saying you can’t upgrade a sixty year old building with new technology? That’s not true. It’s done ALL THE TIME, with great success, in buildings much older than SHS.”
But those were not the questions asked by D7 Board members.
In Dr. Booker’s presentation, he had a colored slide of a fictitious new neighborhood. Before the vote, Clay Mahaffey wanted to know how many homes were projected in this make-believe fantasy community. (Dr. Booker declined to answer. He said he preferred to answer that question in executive session.)
Vernon Beatty asked about the view of the new school from the road. Sanders Lee specifically wanted to know whether it would be similar to Dorman’s. He seemed pleased to learn that the plans provide for an excellent roadside vista, fancy clock tower and brickwork included.
Rick Gray asked only about minority contracts. He didn’t ask about potential alternate plans, low bid, what was best for the tax payers or improving education, but only about the racial composition of the firms awarded the contracts.
The other board members sat silent.
Not one word about education, or poverty levels, or graduation rates or technology or competing proposals or the risks of burdening our community with a bond package totaling just shy of one half billion dollars or anything else. Nothing… until they voted, unanimously.
Then there is Dr. Booker himself. Recall his constant drum beat of 10 mill, and $40 per household, $60 per business and $6 per automobile. But Dr. Booker never mentioned that the 10 mill tax lasts only through the construction phase. Then in 2023, when construction is over and the greedy cronies have all been paid, the tax skyrockets to 74 mills and stays there through 2047. That’s right, a tax the likes this community has never seen and it lasts for 25 years. And Dr. Booker never brought this to the public.
Here is the reality of a 74 mill tax. Let’s say you own a home in Park Hills, Hillbrook or anywhere else in D7 valued at $150,000. There are many elderly on fixed incomes in exactly this situation. Starting in 2023 and continuing for 25 years, the tax on this bond package alone is going to cost them $444 per year, NOT $40. And this is on top of all other taxes, so their overall tax burden will be much higher. But hey, who needs new tires for the car? The elderly shouldn’t be driving anyway, right? So what if the oven goes out or there is an actual leak in the roof or a prescription to buy. We need to pay the fat cats first, right?
Let’s say you have a small business valued at $500,000. Starting in 2023 and continuing for 25 years, your tax on this bond alone is $2,220 per year, NOT $60. Keep in mind a business valued at $500,000 often earns only around $50,000. And that tax applies to all other property as well, so again, the overall tax burden will be much higher.
Furthermore, this bond includes zero dollars for maintenance, stadium upkeep and employees, new technologies, upgrades, emergencies, or anything else. It is strictly a construction bond and it’s being dumped on the backs of our elderly, mostly low income, shrinking community.
Then there’s the utterly negligent local media. Amy and Tom were around when Dr. White and Laura Bauknight tried to funnel hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars to their private country club. So they knew who we were dealing with. And this bond totals hundreds of millions of dollars, not just hundreds of thousands. But did they fact-check one single aspect of Booker’s talking points? Did they push back on any of Booker’s claims? No, they just parroted Dr. Booker’s $40 nonsense. Amy kept saying the vote was for “new schools”, which it was not, if she had bothered to read the ballot. The vote authorizes $185,000,000. “New schools” could be accomplished any number of ways. She failed to mention that. And what about Gordon? He fancies himself an “investigative” journalist, but not a peep.
A WSPA reporter, Brianna, did try to contact me after the vote. Why didn’t she interview Dr. Booker and the D7 Board members, before the vote? My advice to local media, fact-check and push back on politician’s claims. Go to the source. If you don’t want to do your job, quit. Fact-checking and pushing back were only done by ordinary citizens, rather than by those who should, the media.
The Herald-Journal was even worse. They were non-stop open supporters, stacking the deck with their disingenuous “town hall” and their ad nauseam cheerleading. Whatever happened to challenging politicians, to the idea that if something sounds too good to be true that it probably isn’t?
Remember the front page headline touting the Clemson study, just days before the vote? We were curious so we asked for a copy. Odd, the Herald Journal didn’t have it, so my wife called the author directly.
The Spartanburg Chamber of Commerce and the Herald Journal completely misrepresented the “study”, which consisted of nothing more than plugging $185,000,000 into preprogrammed financial software (available to anyone). Economic best guesses were spit out for the three year construction phase only. Furthermore, the analysis examines the impact of industry moving into a community, not local government sucking tax dollars out of a community. And nothing about the burden it places on local residents for 25 years. It took my wife two phone calls and thirty minutes to figure this out. And this passes for front page journalism?
A quick look at D7 census data tells you that Dr. Booker’s numbers don’t add up. There aren’t enough homes and businesses to pay back $185,000,000 with a 10 mill tax, not even close. Remember, there is interest on that $185,000,000 so the total financial burden comes to somewhere just shy of one half billion dollars. But the Herald Journal never asked about that, not once. Only after the damage was done and the $40 lie took hold did they finally mention the 74 mill tax, but always watered down and buried.
Dr. White held just as many meetings, maybe even more, than Dr. Booker, but the media didn’t discuss him at all. They clearly avoided tying him to this project, knowing the community’s opinion of him, even though he was right in there with Dr. Booker, pulling the strings and signing the contracts. I can’t decide if the local media is simply incompetent, or actually in cahoots with Drs. Booker and White, or both.
Then there’s our so-called community leaders. I find it appalling and disgraceful that so many of the area “leaders” touted this proposal and gushed about “helping the community”, without having a clue as to the real numbers. They should be ashamed. The construction companies, realtors, architects, bond dealers, bankers and consultants will pocket millions of dollars up front, while leaving the elderly, many on fixed incomes, and low income families and their children and grandchildren to pay the debt through 2047.
Their absurd justification was mind boggling, touting with their usual pompous sanctimony the “study by Clemson”. As if calling an online financial calculation a “study” makes it beyond question. Let’s see, I’ll build a house that I don’t need and be stuck with a 25 year mortgage I can’t afford because an online financial calculator says that I’ll create some temporary construction jobs.
Can you picture a business owner borrowing $185,000,000 without first examining their ability to repay, never studying the details? That is exactly what our so-called community leaders who campaigned for this construction bond and wrote their self-serving “Guest Columns” did.
How do I know they never saw the details? Because the details didn’t exist until the opposition committee asked for them. District 7 didn’t even have a copy of the repayment schedule until presented with a FOIA request. The D7 office was “at the mercy” of their bond advisor to provide the information. In fact, all during Dr. Booker’s October blitzkrieg I’m not sure even he knew the repayment numbers, because the numbers were not available in the D7 office. Can you imagine?
When you add it all up, winning this bond referendum was actually quite easy for them. The opposition committee had no large budget and no one with any political experience. We’ve all heard of FOIA requests, but have you actually tried to create one? Before the opposition could figure out what to do, the vote was upon us, another deceptive tactic. I wasn’t on the opposition committee, but my wife was co-chair and so I was privy to the effort.
The proponents had an enormous budget, sending an expensive card stock tri-fold brochure full of lies and half-truths to probably every address in the district. I got two of them. The return address on that high dollar brochure was Laura Bauknight. You remember Bauknight, voted with Dr. White to funnel hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars to her private country club. They had hundreds of yard signs using the D7 logo, paid for thousands of phone calls from “students” asking for a new school, and they had the entire local media squarely in their camp.
I’ll give them credit. Dr. Booker, Dr. White, Laura Bauknight, Mayor Junie White and their gang did a good job. I saw people I’ve known my entire life mesmerized by Dr. Booker’s $40 shiny new school lie. One friend told us to get off our high horse. Another said “this isn’t about taxes, but about the future of our children”; more irrational, emotional nonsense to distract from the devastating consequences of this debt. During sign waving, a mom with young kids hollered, “It’s only forty dollars!” Rumor has it Dr. Booker wants his name on the new elementary school. In his honor and to placate the opposition, how about we name it Forty Dollar Elementary? Another win/win?
One thing I find particularly ironic, SC State Representative Harold Mitchell aligned himself with the very thing he rails against, fat cat cronyism at the expense of the less fortunate. Representative Mitchell should ask his constituents for forgiveness every day for what he has wrought down upon them; taking their money on behalf of realtors, construction companies, architects, bond dealers, bankers and consultants with a 74 mill, 25 year tax that hits low income families the hardest, all for a construction bond we don’t need and can’t afford. Remember, this isn’t the federal government printing money and doling it out. No, this debt is repaid straight out of our community.
By the way, the offensive yard signs that Representative Mitchell, Bauknight, Junie White and others used to rally their troops were NOT from the opposition committee. If I were a betting man, I’d say there is a good chance they were a stunt created from the vote YES crowd, a great way to attract attention and emotionally influence others.
No one likes to be duped, but unfortunately Dr. Booker, Dr. White and the slick talkers on the proponent committee did just that to many good citizens of District 7. Many were led to believe that this is about the education of our children. It is not. It is about lining the pockets of greedy scoundrels with hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars while leaving future generations to pay the debt. And all the while telling us it’s “for the children.”
So even if you voted YES, just for a moment, let the enormity of what Booker and White and the D7 School Board have done sink in. As of today, D7 bonds total 64 mills, which by the way is an absurdly high tax rate for our small, shrinking, lower income district. However, those loans will be paid off in 2022. At that time we should all receive a large tax DECREASE. If you own that $100,000 house that Booker and White kept referring to, in 2022 your taxes should DECREASE $256 per year.
But that’s not going to happen. Starting in 2023, the tax skyrockets to 74 mills, for twenty five years. In other words, the new baseline is 74 mills! So you will never see a tax decrease. In fact, the tax on a $100,000 home for this bond alone will be $296, for twenty five years.
But wait, it gets worse. As you and I know, there is ALWAYS something that needs repairing, improving, fixing and so forth that costs more than the yearly D7 budget provides. This is why the School Board borrows extra money in the form of bonds, which the tax payers repay. But remember, the new BASELINE is 74 mills, all the way to 2047, so whenever the School Board needs extra cash they will borrow it ON TOP OF THE 74 MILL BASELINE.
As stated in Anne Cecil’s widely-circulated “vote yes” letter, “This does not mean that in 2022 all needs in the District evaporate.” This level of greed and irresponsibility is EXACTLY what bankrupts cities and communities. Just ask Detroit.
If you’ve been mentioned and I’ve misspoken, I’ll forward your written complaint to my attorney, who has a copy of this letter. If deserved, I’ll write a retraction about you that pilfering tax dollars on the backs of your neighbors doesn’t detract from your noble highbrow reputation.
If you’re one of the many who simply wants a shiny new school and stadium, no matter the irresponsibility, no matter the conflict and corruption, no matter whether we need it or not, no matter the absurd price per square foot and total cost, no matter the burden it places on your neighbors and our community, no matter what, so be it. Just keep justifying and whistling past the graveyard.
However, if you just broke out in a cold sweat because you realize you’ve been hoodwinked, don’t be too hard on yourself. Dr. Booker and Dr. White are polished slick talkers and we never got a single probing question from the media, and so a YES vote is easy to understand. But next time you see Booker, White or any D7 Board member, politely ask them about the 74 mill, 25 year tax. Ask them why you were misled and never told the truth. Give them your property value and ask them what your tax will be, after 2023. There is probably no way to stop this train wreck now, but making your voice heard might help in some small way, or maybe it will just make you feel better.
For me, I don’t care who you are, or what you do, or how you live your life. It’s none of my business… until you put your filthy corrupt greedy hand in my pocket, my family’s pocket and my community’s pocket and take our hard earned money under lying false pretenses. One lesson I learned from my father is that it is our obligation to look out for those who have difficulty looking out for themselves. This construction bond does exactly the opposite. It places an unfathomable financial burden on many elderly living on fixed incomes, small business owners and especially on lower income families, all the way to 2047. It pads the pockets of greedy, unethical, immoral scoundrels, and does nothing to further the education of our children or better our community. It is a corrupt sham and a disgrace.
CDR Barry W. Hull, USNR (Retired)
Proud SHS Graduate, Class of 1975