Fort Mill schools to seek $97.1M

FORT MILL -- The Fort Mill school district on March 4 will ask voters to approve an $87.2 million bond referendum for academic facilities, plus $9.9 million more for athletic facilities in a separate ballot item, the Fort Mill school board decided Monday.

The ballot's main question asks for $87.2 million to build two elementary schools and a middle school, acquire additional school sites and perform maintenance on existing facilities with any leftover bond money.

The ballot additionally asks voters that, if the academic facilities are approved, will they pay $9.95 million more for an auxiliary gym at each high school and a stadium at Nation Ford High. Any balance from the cost of the athletic facilities also would be used to perform improvements at other sites.

If the academic facilities are not approved, bonds would not be sold to build the athletic facilities, under the ballot's terms.

The two ballot questions combined total about $900,000 less than the original $98 million in bond sales the referendum study committee and school administrators had first recommended. Some of the paring came from the Nation Ford football stadium's design. First projected at $8.7 million, the stadium proposed on the ballot would cost $6.165 million, have 6,000 seats and be a metal structure, as is Fort Mill High's.

Design and cost specifications also were trimmed elsewhere so that $5 million for land purchase could be included in the referendum.

Board members spent about an hour Monday fine-tuning the ballot's wording.

"No matter how we word it, we have to go back to the community and explain this is why we have this need," Schools Superintendent Keith Callicutt told board members. "My recommendation is that we decide tonight so we can start with a plan."

Callicutt previously had suggested athletic facilities be separated on the ballot based on feedback he was receiving from the community. Support for the academic buildings was strong, he said, and he did not want to jeopardize that if the community was not as supportive of the athletic facilities.

School officials say an additional gym is necessary at each of the high schools, not only to accommodate the sometimes four and five physical education classes that meet in the existing facility at the same time, but for various varsity and junior varsity sports, ROTC and other activities held there on cold winter evenings.

"We need to get kids home early during the winter months," Fort Mill High Principal Dee Christopher told the board. "The time saving is the most important factor."

Voters were promised that Nation Ford eventually would have a stadium when they approved a referendum that built the second high school several years ago. Stadium supporters also contend Nation Ford needs to build its own athletic traditions with its own colors and mascot separate from Fort Mill High.

All board members were present Monday, and Michael Johnson cast the lone dissenting vote against the referendum's terms.

"I support the academic question," he said after the meeting, "but I have serious concerns about building a stadium. That is why I voted the way I did. I fully expect the people of Fort Mill to pass the new schools. We'll wait and see how they vote on all the other issues."

Whatever voters decide in March, they can expect another referendum two or three years after this. Fort Mill is the fastest-growing school district in the state, with growth not expected to saturate for another decade.

The referendum does not include two elementary schools scheduled to open in 2009 with part of a $70.3 million installment purchase plan mortgage the district approved in December.

Academic facilities:

• Middle school, $33.1 million

• Elementary school No. 8, $24.25 million

• Elementary school No. 9, $24.82 million

• Acquire 50 acres for future schools, $5 million

Athletic facilities:

• An additional gym at Fort Mill and at Nation Ford high schools, $1.86 million each

• Nation Ford football stadium, $6.16 million