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Grappling with growth

The hallways at Gold Hill Elementary School in Fort Mill are crowded as school is dismissed on Jan. 29. Part of Tuesday's bond proposal seeks $87.25 million to build two new elementary schools in the fast-growing district.
The hallways at Gold Hill Elementary School in Fort Mill are crowded as school is dismissed on Jan. 29. Part of Tuesday's bond proposal seeks $87.25 million to build two new elementary schools in the fast-growing district.

Fort Mill school bond referendum on Tuesday

FORT MILL -- Bond referendums come and go, but in the Fort Mill school district, one thing remains constant: growth and the need for more schools to retain district standards.

Analysts project residential growth -- enhanced by proximity to Charlotte, an attractive tax structure and the schools' fine reputation -- won't be built out for at least 10 years. The S.C. Department of Education considers Fort Mill the fastest-growing district in the state.

The question becomes: Will new facilities be built sooner or later? If later, how much more will they cost than now, and how will it affect school quality?

Ted Matthews, co-chairman of the Keep Our Schools Strong community committee supporting Tuesday's referendum, points out if the referendum fails, student-teacher ratios will grow, as will mobile units, some requiring expensive per-classroom bathrooms for younger children.

"Some of our schools can't take mobile units because the land already is restricted," Matthews said. "Failure of the referendum would begin to impact the quality of the school system and have a deteriorating impact long-term."

Fort Mill schools Superintendent Keith Callicutt has repeatedly said he has confidence in continuing support from community members, many of whom moved into the district because of the schools' quality.

Matthews agrees but adds it's a two-edged sword if supporters become over-confident and don't turn out Tuesday.

"There were well over 1,000 'no' votes in the last two referendums," he said. "Even though they both passed, the issue is, if people assume it's going to pass and do not get out and support it, we will not succeed."

Fort Mill referendum veterans

The last time a Fort Mill school referendum did not pass was in September 1998, when $64 million was sought. The referendum committee presented a revised $48 million request eight months later. That measure passed. A successful $62 million bond referendum followed in 2004.

Growth has accelerated since.

Southern Management Group, the district's construction consultant, in October 2006 completed a 10-year study projecting when new elementary, middle and high schools would be needed. The study was revised in October 2007, according to Jim Britton, Southern Management's Fort Mill manager.

"From the first 2006 study to the second facilities study in 2007 ... Growth accelerated faster than projected. That's why we review and update each year," he said.

The Catawba Regional Council of Governments determined the district's enrollment on Jan. 8 was 8,816. Projections are based on building permits and estimate district enrollment will be 9,468 when school begins in the fall. More than half of those new students are expected to be elementary school students who eventually will need middle and high school facilities.

Southern Management predicts district enrollment will near 17,000 by 2016. It also projects a need for a 10th elementary school by 2016, a fifth middle school by 2014 and a third high school by 2011.

Some referendum committee members had suggested inclusion of the third high school on Tuesday's ballot.

Callicutt advocated presenting only those things the district knew were necessary in the near future in the upcoming referendum. He further urged that athletic facilities be included as a second ballot question for fear voters would not approve both.

"We cannot afford to fail," he said.

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