Referendum could exceed $100M

FORT MILL -- Fort Mill school board members are considering whether taxpayers might save money with a bond referendum that could exceed $100 million if money to buy about 60 acres for a third high school was included.

School administrators and planners will crunch numbers in the next several weeks and make a recommendation that the board might vote on Aug. 20.

A committee of about a dozen parents, teachers and school administrators two weeks ago recommended an approximately $98 million spring bond referendum to include two elementary schools, a middle school, ancillary gyms at both high schools and a Nation Ford High School stadium.

Board member Chris White on Monday suggested the referendum might include about $31 million in deferred maintenance. District Superintendent Keith Callicutt said after the meeting that some deferred maintenance must be done within the next five years, whether or not it is included in this referendum.

White and board member Michael Johnson, both outspoken on fiscal responsibility, expressed concern about rapidly escalating property values in Fort Mill.

"If we did all the land purchases in this referendum when it will cost $7 million to $8 million, I would rather buy it now than wait until it costs $12 million," White said.

"I'd just as soon go to $110 million if we need 60 acres for a third high school," Johnson added. The study estimates a third high school will be needed between 2011 and 2013.

After the meeting, Johnson said land in Fort Mill is selling for $50,000 to $100,000 an acre. "And that's today," he added.

The board will determine the exact date and amount of the referendum.

Items the community referendum committee favored were:

• $25 million to $27 million each for two elementary schools to open in 2011;

• About $30.6 million for a middle school to open in 2010;

• $2 million each for ancillary gyms at the high schools; and

• About $8.7 million for a stadium at Nation Ford High.

The recommended bond did not include two elementary schools scheduled to open in 2009 with funds from a $70.3 million installment purchase plan mortgage the district approved in December.

The purchase plan also included money to buy sites for future schools. A 10-year study prepared for the district by Southern Management Group estimates the district will need eight new schools, including a third high school, in the coming decade.

The study indicates Fort Mill schools will experience a 5 percent to 10 percent annual growth rate for the next five to 10 years and 7.5 percent after that. The state education department considers Fort Mill the fastest growing district in South Carolina.

The need for a Nation Ford High stadium became somewhat controversial after the committee's recommendation was publicized.

An $8.7 million stadium would be "the Cadillac of stadiums," Jim Britton of Southern Management explained Monday. A stadium could be built for half that if the design used bleachers and other less expensive features. The extra money could go to land purchase, he said.

Study committee member Gail Cote pointed out that when voters approved the 2004 bond referendum that built Nation Ford High, they were told Nation Ford later would have additions, including its own stadium. Committee members believe a second stadium is necessary because of all the varsity, junior varsity and other school programs that use it, in addition to the community.

Callicutt said he supported the committee's recommendations. "How we place the questions on the referendum is something for the board to discuss," he added.

Delaying action until Aug. 20 almost ensures the referendum will be held next spring rather than this fall.

"I think we would be well-served not to linger," the superintendent said of a final decision on the referendum. "I think we need to make plans and move ahead."