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Fort Mill schools to weigh $98M

FORT MILL -- The Fort Mill school board Thursday will consider a study committee recommendation for a roughly $98 million spring bond proposal to include two elementary schools, a middle school, a Nation Ford High stadium and ancillary gyms at both high schools.

It will be the board's responsibility to determine the proposal's exact amount and the date of a referendum, but the items included in the recommendation would total about $98 million:

• $25 million to $27 million for each elementary school;

• About $30.6 million for a middle school;

• About $8.7 million for a stadium; and

• $2 million each for ancillary gyms.

The committee, comprised of about a dozen parents, teachers and administrators meeting in six two-hour sessions since May, based its conclusions largely on a 10-year facilities study prepared for the district by Southern Management Group. The study indicates the district will require eight new schools in the coming decade.

Actual school cost can vary based on architectural design, preparations required at new school sites, fluctuations in the economy and other factors.

The S.C. Department of Education considers Fort Mill the fastest-growing district in the state based on growth percentage. Two elementary schools, Orchard Park and Gold Hill, already have an enrollment freeze.

Not included in the recommended bond package are two elementary schools the district plans to open in 2009. They were financed through a $70.3 million installment purchase plan, a kind of mortgage that does not require voter approval.

The elementary schools recommended in the bond proposal would be slated to open in 2011, and the middle school in 2010.

The district already has acquired two sites this year -- one beside the new Nation Ford High School large enough to accommodate a middle school, and another off Dobys Bridge Road.

"Hopefully by the end of the summer, we will have four or five pieces of property, including Dobys Bridge and the Nation Ford site," Fort Mill schools Superintendent Keith Callicutt said after Tuesday's meeting.

Not included in the recommendation is a third high school, which projections indicate the district will need sometime between 2011 and 2013.

"We'll have a better idea in a couple of years if the projections have come to fruition and a new high school will be necessary then," Callicutt said.

The recommendation also did not include retirement of the $70.3 million mortgage because a Bank of America representative advised interest rates would not be favorable to the district. Committee member Gwen Savage, a parent and Town Council member, also said she could not approve a bond package for more than $100 million.

Committee members were unanimous in their choice of what the package should include. Enrollment projections demand another middle school and two elementary schools beyond those expected to open in 2009, members said. Building both elementary schools simultaneously would spare expense and additional redistricting frustrations for children and parents, members said.

At one point, the committee considered recommending the athletic facilities be pulled out into a separate item on the ballot, then concluded voters might think those facilities are not as important as the three school buildings.

"Our biggest need is for a safe environment for classes as well as games," Fort Mill High Principal Dee Christopher said. "We sometimes have three classes going on the gym floor at one time. Last year, we had several blocks with five physical education classes at the same time."

Use of only one gym also meant teams had to take turns and students sometimes did not get home from practice sessions until very late at night, he said.

The committee opted to recommend a spring referendum rather than one this fall, largely to provide time to inform the community about the need.

Callicutt said he hopes the board will be able to decide on an exact date and amount for the proposal by sometime in August "at the latest."

"We need to be working, planning and preparing," he said. "I so appreciate this committee's willingness to dedicate the time, energy and sincere thought to this, and for their high level of concern for the students and the future of the Fort Mill school district."

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