Fort Mill school officials are mulling what to do with Banks Trail Middle, a new campus for 900 students sitting empty this year due to budget cuts.
"Our goal is to open that school," Superintendent Chuck Epps said Thursday, but "we have to see how that fits, budget-wise."
Banks Trail, located off Banks Street, was scheduled to open last August. But facing more than $3 million in state cuts, the school board voted to put off the first bell by a year to save the cost of running the campus.
With the last of federal stimulus money drying up this year and a bleak financial outlook for the foreseeable future, district leaders aren't sure when they can afford to open it.
Complicating matters is the question of when to start building an eighth elementary school, which the district planned to open by August 2012 to keep up with new students and relieve crowding at Gold Hill Elementary.
The district owns about 26 acres off Gold Hill Road outside Tega Cay, where it plans to build the new campus. Architects already have drafted designs.
But what happens next is unclear.
"That decision comes after Banks Trail," Epps said. "We would prefer not to open two schools in the same year."
The problem, though, is there hasn't been enough money to open one school.
For years, newcomers flocked to Fort Mill in record numbers. The student population swelled 7 to 10 percent a year with no sign of stopping.
Struggling to keep pace, the district won voter approval in early 2008 for $95.9 million in bonds for construction projects that included Banks Trail and the new elementary school.
Then the economy collapsed. Growth slowed and state tax revenue shortfalls led to school budget cuts.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers exempted most homeowners from property taxes that pay for school operations in exchange for a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax. Property taxes on businesses and rental properties were not cut.
As the recession slashed sales tax revenue, many educators believe the law is a major reason public school funding has plummeted in growing districts like Fort Mill's.
Now, the school system is left with a campus that it needs but can't afford to open, school board Chairman Patrick White said.
District officials ran a hypothetical budget for next school year based on this year's figures. It showed that if the number of students grows by about five percent as expected and Banks Trail opens in August, the district would be short at least $3 million, White said.
Even if Banks Trail remained closed an extra year, the scenario showed the district would be short $1.5 million.
"We're just stuck," school board member Michael Johnson said. "No one's going to be overly thrilled when it's all said and done.
"Unfortunately, (for the public) this is going to be a discussion about, 'You built a school and you're not opening it,' versus a discussion about, 'We could open it, but here's what would happen.'"
One option, White said, might be to open part of the school. It's not clear how that would work, though. Officials said they're just beginning to talk about how to move ahead.
"It doesn't need to be an emotional decision," White said.
"And it doesn't need to be a politically correct decision. It needs to be based on fact like it was last year."