Fort Mill school officials plan to spend more than $12 million on land and construction for a bus maintenance center, a new central office and a fifth middle school.
Officials say the move is strategic, expecting land in the 50-square-mile district will grow increasingly scarce and more expensive in the future. It's part of a plan that school board Chairman Patrick White said will keep ahead of future student growth like the surge of newcomers in the middle of the decade that crammed schools and left district leaders playing catch-up.
The money will come from savings on previous construction projects and leftover cash from a 2008 bond referendum, according to district figures. A share - $600,000 - is expected to come from selling the district's current maintenance building to the town of Fort Mill.
Superintendent Chuck Epps outlined his plans:
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Middle School 5: The district will spend $2.9 million for about 40 acres off Pleasant Road adjacent to Pleasant Knoll Elementary to eventually build an elementary-middle school complex similar to the Fort Mill, Gold Hill and Springfield campuses. Construction wouldn't start until "the latter part of the decade," White said. Enrollment projections show middle schools will reach capacity around 2019.
Central office: The district plans to buy and outfit two buildings in the Gold Hill Commons office park off Deerfield Drive near the Charlotte Knights baseball stadium for $4.9 million. The administrative staff, housed in three locations across the district, will move there. The district will put its current headquarters off Elliott Street up for sale.
"Schools have increased in number and have pushed outwards from the center of town, making the current school district office less central and therefore less convenient for students, their families, district employees and visitors," Epps said. "Renovations and additions at the current location occurred in 1980 and 2003, but there is no longer adequate space for public and school meetings, or for expansion."
Bus and maintenance facility: Epps plans to spend $4.6 million to build the facility on about 12 acres in a planned office park off Deerfield Drive near Knights Stadium. The move will merge the Fort Mill schools transportation and operations departments, which now run in separate locations. It also will move the district's 76 school buses away from Fort Mill High, where buses have parked near students and caused safety concerns, Epps said.
"The new facility ... is planned for 150 buses, the proper security and a secure training area for bus drivers, which is another area lacking in the current space," Epps said.
The complex could be ready by next summer, White said.
The move to buy more land and build facilities is the first such effort since the school board voted not to open Banks Trail Middle, a new campus for 900 students sitting empty this year because of budget cuts.
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 ringing the first bell by a year to save the cost of running the campus. Epps now plans to open the school for 6th and 7th grades in August and with 8th grade in 2012.
The district, White said, should buy land and buildings now because it has capital money saved and prices have dropped in the downturn. State law bars districts from spending capital money on operating costs, such as salaries and monthly electricity bills.
Michael Johnson was the only one of seven school board members to vote against the plan Tuesday night. While he supports Epps' plan, Johnson said he wanted to spend $2.4 million of capital money savings to pay down district debt, which would lower home and business property tax bills.
The board instead voted to have Epps' staff present a debt-payment plan in May.
"I felt we have an excess amount of money," Johnson said. "We have bought everything we need to buy. I said, 'Let's make a statement here tonight and refund the money to taxpayers.'
"Maybe if we give people a tax break, we can better sell this to them."