A crowded house in Fort Mill schools

Reading and math specialist Gina Kidd works at her desk in a converted storage room that she shares with two other teachers at Springfield Elementary School in Fort Mill last month. The ductwork next to her desk is for ventilation.
Reading and math specialist Gina Kidd works at her desk in a converted storage room that she shares with two other teachers at Springfield Elementary School in Fort Mill last month. The ductwork next to her desk is for ventilation.

According to Ellie Abraham, a fifth-grader who's attended Springfield Elementary since kindergarten, "People are squished."

In kindergarten, her grade level was divided into three classes. Today, Springfield's fifth grade has grown to six classes.

Springfield Elementary had 799 students at the end of the last school year. There were 966 students enrolled at the last official count on Jan. 7, 66 students more than the school's 900-student capacity. The enrollment was 980 the week before last, according to Springfield Principal Scott Frattaroli.

Overcrowding at Springfield is just one reason school district officials hope voters will approve a bond referendum totaling about $96 million on March 4. The first ballot question seeks $87.25 million for two new elementary schools and a middle school, plus money to purchase land for more schools in the future. The second question seeks $8.718 million for an additional gym at each of the high schools and stadium seating and concessions at Nation Ford High.

Ellie and classmates Joey Martinek and Garrett Davis, all 11, take their Springfield Gifted and Talented class in "The Villas," three mobile units with two classrooms each, but no bathroom or running water. No class meets in the mobile units for more than 90 minutes for that reason, Frattaroli said.

On their walk to and from the main building, the children pass a huge cargo container like those hauled down the highway by semi-tractor-trailers off of sea-going vessels. It's being used for storage because most of the school's closets and storage rooms have been converted into classrooms for small groups of students. Fresh air is pumped into the small, storage-room classrooms through temporary ducts.

"There's a lot more noise in The Villas," Joey said, referring to gym classes that meet on the field outside.

The children also wish they didn't have to go to the main building for a drink of water or to use the bathroom. And there are so many new teachers they don't know, they miss the sense of home they had at Springfield when they were younger.

"There's a lot more people in the hall," Garrett added.

Like two of Fort Mill's other elementary schools already with frozen enrollment -- Gold Hill and Orchard Park -- Springfield's enrollment will be capped June 6. But those students won't be shuttle-bused to or from Riverview Elementary, as more than 200 Gold Hill and Orchard Park children currently are. That's because Riverview's enrollment stood only 24 children shy of the 900-student maximum on Jan. 7. Newly arriving Springfield children will be shuttled next school year to Fort Mill Elementary, which had room for 127 more children on Jan. 7.

With the district growing by about 800 students per year, nearly half of them elementary school students, officials predict that all five elementary schools will be at or beyond capacity sometime next school year.

Fort Mill's sixth and seventh elementary schools are expected to open in 2009 with sale of bonds from a $70.3 million installment purchase plan, a kind of mortgage the district took in December. But the growth rate projects a fourth middle school will become necessary in 2010. Projections also indicate the district will need an eighth and ninth elementary school in 2011.

"For the next five years at least, there is nothing to indicate they will not continue to grow in that district," said Mike Vead, senior planner for the Catawba Regional Council of Governments.

In the past six years, the district's annual enrollment growth rose from 5.1 percent to 10.3 percent in 2006-2007. Vead and council staff project growth at 11.5 percent through 2011-2012, and the S.C. Department of Education considers Fort Mill the fastest-growing school district in the state.

The district's housing market remains strong despite a nationwide slump, Vead said.

"The driving forces have always been the location adjacent to Charlotte and I-77, and also the quality of the school district," said Vead, who also pointed to a new South Carolina law that replaces school operating taxes with a penny sales tax as an incentive for homebuyers.

Many parents admit those factors drew them to Fort Mill. They credit school officials for a creative, positive outlook that Springfield has maintained despite crowding.

"It's incredible how they are working," said Springfield Elementary parent Elsa Paxtor, who moved to Fort Mill a year-and-a-half ago and has three boys in the schools. "You can feel the courage of this school."

She has lunch with one of her sons at Springfield Elementary each week. There were 19 students in his class at the beginning of the school year, she said. Now, there are 23.

Springfield Elementary School Improvement Council member Brynne Fisher, who has a fourth-grader at the elementary school, points out "my son's playground is now populated by three mobile units." Until recently moved to a mobile cart, her son's computer lab met on the cafeteria stage, she said.

"There are seven fourth-grade classes, all with 22 to 24 children," she said. "Can you imagine how impossible it is for the fourth grade to do a field trip?"

She, Paxtor and Leona Smith were among parents who attended a recent referendum forum sponsored at the school by Keep Our Schools Strong, a community group promoting the referendum. Smith volunteered to become a campaign coordinator in her neighborhood.

"A lot of people are not doing research on this," she said.

She and her son, Jordan Smith, a Springfield Middle School student, support the referendum.

"Everybody is busting into one another to get to their lockers," Jordan said.

Fort Mill resident Len Weissberger has attended the forums and voiced his opposition. Other dissenters are difficult to find.

Weissberger contends there are taxpayers in Fort Mill who cannot afford the $55 a year the committee estimates the new bonds would cost the owner of a $100,000 home. He also wonders if there will be enough money from the state to fund school operations.

School Superintendent Keith Callicutt and other York County school superintendents and school boards are urging legislators to amend sales tax law disbursement to take faster-growing districts into consideration. He points out the state still will allot Fort Mill other operating money on a weighted per-pupil basis.

"If we have enough students to fill these schools, we will get dollars from the state to operate them," Callicutt said. "Whether it is to the degree and level we would like for student-teacher ratios remains to be seen."

Callicutt hopes voters are well-informed and turn out to vote. "I think the rest will take care of itself," he said.

Ted Matthews, co-chairman of Keep Our Schools Strong, views that as his committee's role.

"We think the most important thing we can do is mobilize our volunteers to call people to get them to vote," he said.

Fisher hopes so, too.

"There was room for me and my kids when we came here," she said. "There should be room for the next people."