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Transfer tax would help Swain schools

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

After several years of trying to secure funding for school improvements, Swain County officials say that money generated by a land transfer tax may be the answer they’ve been looking for.

The land transfer tax will be on the ballot Nov. 6 when Swain voters go to the polls. If approved, it would bring in almost $800,000 per year.

There’s little doubt that the county’s schools could benefit from additional funding. Swain’s two elementary schools each have six modular classrooms, and the middle and high schools are over capacity, said Swain County Manager Kevin King.

East and West elementary schools are the newest buildings at 16 years of age. Swain County High School is 30 years old and parts of the middle school date back to the 1930s.

“The age of facilities, as well as increased enrollments, efforts to decrease class size and the addition of new programs has created a need to begin to plan for future expansion,” Robert White, the Swain County superintendent, told The Smoky Mountain News in a written statement.

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The county purchased a 50-acre plot of land in September that one day will serve as the site of a new middle or high school, but it currently lacks the money to do anything with the site.

“We found a piece of property that could benefit the school system, and now we’re just trying to find money to make that possible,” King said.

Commissioners’ efforts to find ways to fund school construction and improvements have been largely fruitless.

“We’ve been looking at a way to generate money for probably the last five years just for school construction,” King said. The county has petitioned the state several times for a 1-cent sales tax increase, but it wasn’t granted. When the land transfer tax option became available, commissioners voted to put the money directly toward school funding.

School officials are hesitant to take a stance on the issue, wanting to leave it up to the voters to decide what taxes they want to pay. However, they admit any funding they could get would be helpful.

The school board hasn’t formally discussed the tax, said board Vice Chairman George Oliver.

“We’ve not talked about it. It’s a vote for the people of the county. It’s up to them, (though) each person has their own individual opinion,” Oliver said.

Of the tax’s impact, Oliver said, “It’ll hit the schools, that’s for sure.”

White’s statement on the issue is similar to the school board’s in the sense that he wants voters to make the decision themselves.

“Regardless of how the community feels about this issue and while it would benefit Swain County Schools, I believe it is important that each citizen exercise their privilege of voting,” said White.

White, though, also said the tax would not be an additional financial burden on many residents. “The land transfer tax will not affect most people in their lifetime as opposed to an increase in property tax which would affect all land owners every year. The land transfer tax rate seems to be at a reasonable rate. The tax on $50,000 would only be $200.”

It is possible that the county would be forced to raise property taxes to pay for schools if it can’t find another source of funding.

The land transfer tax is far from a sure thing. Two opposition groups have formed in the county to oppose it, and signs proclaiming “Vote No to Home Tax,” dot the county. A group called Citizens for Education has also formed in favor of the tax.

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