Fort Mill school district voters approved more than $226 million in funding for local schools in a referendum Tuesday.
“We’ve had several huge decisions,” Superintendent Chuck Epps said. “Tonight’s was the most historic to this point.”
Relief, as much as celebration, filled the post-referendum gathering of school officials and supporters at the Spratt Building downtown. Runners reported results from each of the 27 precincts Tuesday night well ahead of unofficial results posting from the York County Voter Registration and Elections office.
More than 60 percent of voters approved the question. According to the elections office website, 3,258 voted in favor and 2,187 were opposed. The results remain unofficial until they are certified by the county later this week.
The Fort Mill school board called the referendum in attempt to stay ahead of a continued wave of new residents expected to swell the district’s student population by 7,000 students to 20,000 by the end of the decade.
“We felt like the whole time we were doing our duty to respond to growth in our area,” said school board Chairman Patrick White. “We feel like we put together a good plan.”
The referendum asked voters whether the district should be allowed to bond more than $226 million. Included is money for a third high school, a new middle school, an aquatics center, a training facility, land for future schools, new buses, technology upgrades and other growth-related expenses. The aquatics center will only be built if the Leroy Springs complex, where the high school swim teams practice and compete, closes and no other local facility becomes available, officials said.
The school board has a meeting set for Wednesday to look at technology upgrades and plans related to the middle school. The new middle school could have firm plans ready by November with an August 2017 opening. Earnest planning on the new high school is “a couple of years” away, Epps said.
“We’re going to hit the ground running,” he said.
Much of the opposition to the plan came from precincts with older Fort Mill and Tega Cay homes. For instance, at the Pleasant Road precinct, where 16.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, 156 were opposed to the bond issue and 109 were in favor.
White said the bond was a “difficult decision” because of its size, and it came down for some voters to a referendum on community growth itself. The district maintained that municipalities plan for and approve growth, and the district is bound by law to keep pace with enrollment outside its control.
White said for people wanting to send a message through the bond that they are tired of growth, perhaps they did.
“Hopefully, this vote sends a message,” he said.
Carie Deneau, a Fort Mill resident for eight years, voted no. She home-schooled her children and sent them to private school, supporting both as alternatives to a growing public system, she said. If she can spend $5,000 per year for a private education, Deneau can’t see why the public schools cost more for what she sees as poorer results.
“The amount of money that they already are spending now per pupil, I think they need to use the money that they are getting more wisely,” she said. “They’re milking people dry.”
Fort Mill school officials have repeatedly emphasized in forums and other meetings that the $7,700 it spends per pupil is well below the state average, yet the district’s performance is at or near the top every year.
Jeremy Walters, a Libertarian and twice a candidate for the S.C. House, said he voted no on Tuesday morning.
“I voted no, because I don’t want my taxes to go up,” Walters said. “And where does this money really go?”
Some voters Tuesday described frustration with their yes and no votes, saying they wished they could vote on whether to allow so many new homes rather than voting solely on the school issue. Some voters had little trouble voting in favor of the bond package.
“We’ve got so many kids in the school district that we need to take care of,” said resident Richard Hilton. “It’s education and athletics. If you’re going to keep growing you have to pay for things like this, and a bond is the best way to do it.”
Brian Murphy, one of four community members on a bond steering committee, said even with the closer-than-usual result his district didn’t disappoint.
“I grew up here,” he said. “I moved back here. I think what this referendum shows is this community values public education.”
Epps said not all takeaways from the vote were positive.
“People that have been here for a while are unhappy with the growth,” he said.
Yet, he isn’t worried about factions forming between older Fort Mill and new. At a time when Tega Cay was pacing growth in the area, there was some sense of longstanding residents versus newer ones, Epps said. With the districtwide growth now, he isn’t worried about issues dividing the community.
“We’ve long gotten past that because we’ve got growth pretty much everywhere,” Epps said.
John Marks • 803-547-2353
How they voted
The biggest turnout was at the Shoreline Precinct, where 377 voters cast ballots (233 in favor, 143 opposed). At Fort Mill No. 2, 220 voted “yes” and 155 “no” and at Doby’s Bridge, where nearly 19 percent of registered voters turned out, 199 voter in favor and 146 were opposed. Absentee ballots were split nearly even, 38-37 with the majority in favor of the bond issue.
For a complete breakdown of the unofficial tally, go to yorkcountygov.com