School and municipal leaders brought the same message to the breakfast table, serving up their takes on the Fort Mill, Tega Cay and nearby unincorporated York County areas.
“The current state of the community is good,” said Chuck Epps, superintendent of the Fort Mill School District. “It’s good.”
The York County Regional Chamber of Commerce held its annual State of the Community Breakfast in Tega Cay last Tuesday. Here’s a look at the hottest local issues, including a few upcoming:
Fort Mill School District
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The biggest issue impacting Fort Mill schools isn’t new. In 2002 the district had 5,900 students. Enrollment just topped 14,000. The district is planning for up to 18,000 students in coming years.
“We have doubled in size in a 10-year period,” Epps said. “Just think about how that impacts everything.”
The district could spend almost $2,500 per student in 2008, Epps said, which dipped to just more than $1,600 in 2011 due to recession. The number is back up to $2,350 which is a steady increase since, but still less than almost a decade ago.
About half of district money overall comes from the state — the state also allocates per pupil spending — making budget decisions in Columbia critical to serving students in Fort Mill.
“The forecast is not that rosy going forward,” Epps said.
The district has 15 schools. A new middle school will open next August, with attendance lines coming this fall. A new high school arrives in August 2019. Projections show the need for a 10th elementary school and sixth middle school in 2021, an 11th elementary school by 2023.
Voters approved a bond referendum last year at more than $200 million, but even then the district knew capital needs would require at least that much more just to get through 2024. Epps said it is “purely speculative” when a new bond vote might come, but if isn’t a question. Epps gave a 2018-2020 window Tuesday.
“It will call for another referendum,” he said.
Epps credits low student teacher ratios for much of the success in Fort Mill. All schools earned the most recent Palmetto Gold awards, and high school students earned $29.4 million in scholarships this year. Scores on the SAT and ACT exceed national averages, Fort Mill trailed only one district statewide in SAT performance despite 75 percent of students here taking the test compared to a half dozen in that district.
Epps said statewide, South Carolina gets a worse reputation on standardized testing than the state deserves because not all states encourage as many students to take the tests.
“In South Carolina, most of our students take the test,” he said.
Yet, test scores will suffer if state and local funding concerns persist as more students arrive, Epps said.
“We’re going to have to let that student teacher ratio creep,” he said. “We’re going to have more kids than we can afford to hire teachers for to keep that low load.”
There are major challenges, and more minor ones. New attendance lines when schools open are something the community sometimes latches onto, but Epps said quality schools run throughout the district.
“All of our schools are strong,” he said. “That part we’ll get through.”
In Fort Mill, business momentum is growing downtown. Mayor Guynn Savage said the town is working on a permanent farmers market to “look a little bit like the old train depot” she remembers growing up, and expanded parking adjacent to Veterans Park at the bottom of Main Street.
“We’ll add that new parking that our downtown businesses deserve,” she said.
Fort Mill is “sustaining that momentum” with recent renovations in its historic district by increasing business incentives. Several ongoing projects are happening on Main Street now.
“It’s kind of everything we’ve been hoping for,” Savage said.
Recreation is a big item in Tega Cay. The city continues toward its 61-acre, $12 million Catawba Park project along the Catawba River. The city recently annexed land for the Game On sports complex on more than 80 acres. Game On should break ground early next year. Construction bids for the park should go out this fall with groundbreaking by next spring.
Infrastructure improvements are helping, too. Hubert Graham Way is under construction connecting historic Tega Cay to newer areas.
“It’ll allow us to have more connectivity between the business district and the residential,” said Mayor George Sheppard.
The city also repaired two miles of sewer line since taking over the former Tega Cay Water Service, clearing and repairing 80 percent of the pipes. Work should be done in early 2017. The city also installed 2,000 new water meters allowing city staff to check them without home visits.
“We are well on our way to improving the system,” Sheppard said.
Roads and recycling centers are on the minds of many in unincorporated areas, said York County Councilman Chad Williams. Williams expects a temporary trash and recycling collection site to be open by November, replacing the long-time site on Tom Hall Street the county is losing Sept. 24 after an year-to-year lease wasn’t extended.
A permanent site would replace the temporary one at the same location once land is purchased and approvals given, according to the county plan. The temporary setup would mean more truck travel and other issues compared to a permanent one.
“Hopefully those inconveniences will be on the county’s end and not the citizen’s end,” Williams said.
The other issue is Pennies for Progress, where a new list of road needs should come up for public referendum in November 2017. Past campaigns have had issues, mainly cost estimates, but the county is optimistic.
“It is the single most successful project that we’ve had,” Williams said.
A citizen commission is coming up with the road list now. Public meetings continue countywide.
“Council votes it up or down,” Williams said of the list. “That’s our only choice.”
The final decision on a then approved list belongs to citizens. In past years road projects have been priority based, but also spread throughout the county since wide support is needed to pass it. Williams expects the same will be done this time, rather than focusing all the Pennies attention on high-growth areas like Fort Mill, Tega Cay or Rock Hill.
“There’s probably not going to be anything different in the philosophy,” he said. “There should be plenty of reasons to vote for it in Fort Mill and Tega Cay.”