Building schools costs, but work boosts local economy

Workers install bleachers in the gym at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill.
Workers install bleachers in the gym at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill.

As the population of York County grows, local school districts often find themselves building new schools to keep pace.

Two new schools will open in the York County this year, with two more to follow in 2008. There's a new one in Lancaster County this year as well.

All that construction gives the local economy a boost, said Mark Mitchell, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Winthrop University and a school superintendent for 19 years.

"It's one of the hidden benefits of a new school building," he said.

"It's not just the labor that is enhanced through the local area and the construction companies and the lumber yards. There's that economic boost, but there's also the economic boost in the development around the schools."

It's not uncommon to see businesses or residential neighborhoods spring up in previously rural areas where schools are built.

An easy sell

The relationship between new schools and new development can be complex.

In Rock Hill, the school district purchased the land for its latest elementary school from The Tuttle Co.

When India Hook Elementary School opens this week, buses will pass through The Woodlands, the new housing development next door, to drop off students.

"Builders would love to have their subdivision in the same place as a school," said Jason Tuttle, Woodlands project manager with The Tuttle Co. "It's an easy sell for folks that their kids can literally walk to school."

Standard Pacific Homes, the builders, advertises the on-site school as one of the neighborhood perks.

But the relationship isn't always so cut-and-dry.

John Hair, associate superintendent for administrative services, said the location of planned new developments is one thing the district considers when picking the location for a new school. But that isn't the only thing, he said, because the new school still must alleviate overcrowding at existing schools.

Butch Brindel, CEO of the Piedmont Regional Association of Realtors, said he thinks residential development follows city services such as water and sewer that are extended because of new school construction, not the schools themselves.

York County Tax Assessor Teresa Simmons said houses near schools aren't inherently worth more, but Brindel said they can be easier to sell.

"Even though the developer is going to consider the services that are there more than the schools, it's easier for our realtors to market the houses if they can market the schools at the same time," Brindel said.

Keeping it local

Not all of the benefits of building schools come after construction is complete.

About $710,000 worth of subcontractors working on India Hook Elementary were based in York County, according to records from M.B. Kahn, the construction management firm handling the project.

An approximate $1.5 million heating and cooling contract went to a company based in Lancaster County.

The Fort Mill school district does not track local participation the same way, but Karen Puthoff, assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said local businesses are encouraged to try to win jobs.

"We're fortunate enough to have several local contractors who like to work with us, and so they actually do put in very competitive bids," Puthoff said.

School districts are required to accept the cheapest bid that meets the specifications for each job, regardless of where the company is based.

Mark Mitchell, the Winthrop professor, said the financing of new schools also is an economic booster.

When school bonds are approved, that gives investors the opportunity to purchase the bonds.

Interest on school bonds is tax free, which is seen as an advantage to big investors, Mitchell said.

And building a school is no small endeavor.

When complete, India Hook will have cost about $16 million. Nation Ford High School, which is preparing to open its doors in Fort Mill, cost about $39 million.

"People always have the misconception that building a school is all expense and no benefit, and that's not always true," Mitchell said. "Even though it does require an increase in taxes sometimes, there is a boost to the local economy as well."