Predicting pace of Fort Mill schools growth proves tricky

The most recent set of population estimates has touched off a new round of speculation about just how fast Fort Mill schools will grow this year.

Fort Mill school enrollment has grown 60 percent over the past seven years and will accelerate by 11.5 percent from last May to 8,966 at the end of this school year, Mike Vead of the Catawba Regional Council of Governments told school officials Monday night.

But school officials question whether the projections are high enough. They point out Vead's long-term projections have been accurate in the past, but add that the district already has 8,635 students this year.

"Between the 10th day of school last year and the 10th day of school this year, we grew by 804 students," Schools Superintendent Keith Callicutt said. "Add that to 8,635 students, and what would it be? I think we might grow more this year than we did last."

In August, 204 homes were built in the district. Callicutt called it the highest number ever.

The district will enroll an additional 1,031 students by the end of the 2008-2009 school year and continue to accelerate to 13,858 students by the end of the 2011-2012 school year, Vead projects.

Board members asked whether the figures took the new Property Tax Relief law into account. Vead said it did not. Fort Mill is already the fastest growing school district in the state based on growth percentage, and school officials predict the new law, which eliminates homeowners' school operating taxes, will draw more parents willing to commute to Charlotte.

School board members also were concerned that Vead's approach considers single-family growth and not multi-family developments -- such as apartment and townhouse complexes -- which are increasingly being built in Fort Mill.

Vead admitted that if he had included multi-family housing in his projections, the figures "would be considerably higher."

"Very few districts in the state have growth anywhere near this," he added.

The board's greatest worry at this point is with elementary school enrollment projections, which were not factored into the study. Orchard Park and Gold Hill elementary schools are at capacity and have an enrollment freeze. Springfield Elementary reached capacity at the beginning of this school year and has added mobile units.

School officials expect each of the district's elementary schools to be beyond capacity by the end of the school year. The district plans to open two additional elementary schools in 2009, but is considering options for accommodating elementary school students during the 2088-2009 school year.

"We will get through this year," Callicutt said. "Next year is the issue, and it will be uncomfortable."

District officials expect to devise a plan in January to inform parents, Callicutt said.

Vead talked about the nationwide housing slump, but added, "I haven't seen evidence of it here. This growth is going to level off at some point."

If his projections for this year are off-target, Vead said he would revise his formula.

"At the rate homes are being built, if they stop selling them, builders and planners are going to be in bad financial trouble," Callicutt concluded.

End-of-the year projections for enrollment in Fort Mill schools:

2007-2008 = 8,966

2008-2009 = 9,997

2009-2010 = 11,147

2010-2011 = 12,429

2011-2012 = 13,858

-- Source: Catawba Regional Council of Governments