Lexington 1 school district officials are defending a decision to buy nearly 55 acres of land from a former school board member at a price that's seven times the property's assessed value.
The board voted May 15 to purchase the land off Fairview Road for $982,980. The land is valued at $144,440, according to county records. The land was purchased from former board member Jean Nichols Haggard, who also retired as principal of Pelion High School in 2012, and her brother, Hugh A. Nichols.
When the land was purchased by the Nichols family in 2001, they paid $162,000 for a little more than 81 acres. Seventeen years later, Lexington 1 paid nearly seven times that price for about 26 fewer acres.
Lexington 1 officials posted on the district's website a lengthy defense of the purchase, which was approved unanimously by the district's board. The statement cited benefits such as location, soil quality, topography, access to utilities and numerous advantages. The land, purchased for a new middle school, is located across Main Street from Pelion High School and the present middle school.
"The district prides itself on being good stewards of tax dollars and keeps site development costs in mind because it directly impacts the bottom line and the final per acre cost of the project," officials wrote on the district's website.
"Who owns the property has nothing to do with the land purchase. Some people have expressed a belief that the district purchased this site because of its past relationship with the owners. That is ridiculous."
The issue has become the talk of this small rural community in southwest Lexington County.
"People are really concerned," said state Rep. L. Kit Spires, a Pelion pharmacist, who said he hadn't taken a side about the purchase.
"People are not concerned about building a middle school," said Spires, a Republican. "They're not concerned about the location. But the price seems a little extravagant. Teachers don't have enough money to buy supplies and (the board) can spend this amount of money on property?"
Spires said schools often run into difficulties after property is purchased that make the cost of construction go up, so finding the right site upfront could justify added land costs.
Spires said the $18,000 an acre might seem reasonable in more urban areas.
"But this isn't a metropolitan area," he said. "We don't have a Nucor (a steel fabrication plant in Lexington). We're a farming community."
Spires said he is "doing some research" into what other communities have paid for school land.
Efforts to reach board Chairwoman Debra Knight were unsuccessful Tuesday. A district spokeswoman referred to the commentary on the website.
Haggard is a member of the Pelion High School Hall of Fame. Her father and mother were principals of the high school as well.
The school district approached the family about purchasing the land as a site for a new Pelion Middle School, she told The State, noting its location across from the present high school and middle school. The school district offered the price to Haggard and Nichols, Haggard said, and the family could choose to accept it or not. The sale has not been finalized, she said.
"From our standpoint, it's a very good piece of property because it's close to all the other schools," Haggard said. "We're just excited that the district has decided that they will replace the present (school). It's very old, and some of the issues with it, especially the restrooms, you just cannot correct the problems."