PELION, SC (WIS) - When Brent Sossamon takes a look at a patch of woods at the corner of Highway 178 and Fish Hatchery Road in Pelion, he doesn't see a million bucks.
"I definitely don't see how this is valued at that amount of money," he said.
The land in Pelion was valued at $144,440, according to the most recent Lexington County tax bill, but that's not what the Lexington One school board paid for it.
Last Tuesday, the Lexington School District One School board voted unanimously to buy the 55-acre site for $982,980 in hopes of building a new middle school there soon.
"I mean, that's a lot of money. The kids definitely need a school. But the issue is, if I was to sell that land, we wouldn't have gotten the same price," said Sossamon.
Sossamon feels that way because of who the district bought the land from. The property was owned by former board member and former Pelion High School Principal Jean Nichols Haggard and Hugh A. Nichols. Haggard was principal of Pelion High School from 1992-2012 and, after she retired, she was elected to the school board where she served from 2012-2015.
"It has eroded public confidence. For me, it's been eroded for a long time," said Jada Garris of Gilbert.
Garris has been one of the most vocal critics of the land deal. In an interview with WIS, she said board members owe the public an explanation.
"This is such a big issue to me because I think it embodies everything that is wrong with our school district," Garris said.
Even though Garris feels she and the public were kept in the dark entirely, the district has said it never publicizes land deals.
A Lexington One spokesperson described the piece of property as "perfect" and "a bargain," since it's close to the high school, has access to roads and utilities, and shouldn't require an excessive headache and cost to develop.
"The Pelion property is a rare piece of property that matches all of these needs and guidelines exceptionally well. While we know that some people in the community feel that the initial per acre cost was higher than anticipated, we know that the property is a bargain when you consider all factors of site development (access to utilities, road frontage, and development, topography, etc.)," the spokesperson said via email. "Because it not only meets but exceeds our expectations for a site, it will keep the cost per acre low throughout the development and construction process. Just because the cost of land is cheaper up front does not mean that the final cost per acre will remain cheaper if the site requires excessive site development."
The spokesperson also said that the Lexington School District One "prides itself on being good stewards of tax dollars" and says the district's relationship with the previous owner had nothing to do with the sale.
Regardless, Sossamon's trust is lost.
"If I can't trust you to spend the tax money wisely, why are you in that position?" he said.
Meanwhile, Garris, who's running for an open school board seat, has similar concerns. When contacted Tuesday, five of the six other candidates also indicated they have questions about the purchase.
"This land deal highlights the need for ethics reform for school boards across South Carolina," said Dino Teppara, a candidate, in part. "While I support building a new middle school and do not have all the details about this purchase, it is hard for me to imagine how paying seven times the assessed value of this property was a wise and responsible decision. You wouldn't buy a home for seven times the market rate so why would our school district overpay to buy this land?"
"The questions being asked are legitimate questions," another candidate, Jim Harpe, added.