The Fort Mill School district is asking resident to approve a $226 million bond package to finance the construction of a third high school, new middle school, land acquisition and other capital needs tied to rapid rate of growth.
It’s estimated the district’s enrollment will grow from 13,000 to 20,000 students in just a few years.
The package includes more than $9 million to build a swimming facility to replace the Leroy Springs Recreation Complex pool.
The complex pool is where the Fort Mill and Nation Ford high school swim teams practice and compete, and it seems likely the complex will close in a few years.
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District officials said, however, that the district won’t raise the money for a new pool through a bond issue if an alternative is available, including the complex staying open.
As the May 5 school bond referendum nears in Fort Mill, residents are taking sides.
Here’s a look at the reasons why a handful of residents are making their decisions:
For pro school bond residents, the referendum isn’t a vote for or against community growth: It’s all about children.
Brynne Fisher moved to Tega Cay 20 years ago, then into an unincorporated part of the district 11 years ago. She and her husband have a college sophomore, a junior at Nation Ford High School and a fifth-grader at Springfield Elementary School.
Fisher said she is frustrated with continued residential growth, but not to the point of voting no on the bond.
“I don’t feel anyone could drive around town and not realize that there are a lot of new children that will be coming to the school district,” she said.
The bond vote isn’t about growth, Fisher said, but children. A no vote doesn’t hold planners and developers accountable, she said.
“It is unfair to the kids of the school district to make them pay for the mistakes that the grown-ups have made.”
A no vote also won’t keep developers out of the area like some on the opposite side of the bond issue say, Fisher said.
“It will have absolutely no effect,” she said.
Mary Farnsworth has been in Fort Mill since 1971, sending her children through the school district years ago. The cost is a concern, but not so great a concern that she would vote no.
“It’s very expensive,” Farnsworth said. “I’m going to vote for it because if we don’t vote for it, then what do we have?”
Disliking so much residential growth isn’t a reason to vote no, she said.
“If it’s coming it’s coming, so let’s get our population educated,” Farnsworth said.
She would like to see the aquatics center separate from school construction, as she could see voting against it. But Farnsworth trusts district leadership and says she’s voted for each school bond since she’s been here.
“They’ve done their homework,” she said. “They wouldn’t ask for it if they didn’t need it.”
Baxter resident Ashli Welsh moved here five years ago. She and her husband have three children, first- through fifth-graders at Orchard Park Elementary School.
She, too, is unhappy with rapid growth and what she sees as a lack of planning with new residential construction.
“We can in no way blame the school district,” Welsh said. “On the contrary, the school district is the only entity that seems to have done any planning in this mess.”
The school district is trying to keep up with growth, not causing it, she said.
“Saying no on the bond will ensure mobile units and larger class sizes, lost programs and lower quality of education, all things that we moved here to avoid,” Welsh said.
For supporters and opponents who decry a lack of planning, Welsh asks what they would say of a district not providing for an incoming wave of students already guaranteed by approved residential construction.
“Our schools deserve better, our teachers deserve better, our children deserve better,” she said.
Anti-bond sentiment isn’t about voting no against schools. It’s about this specific plan, and what residents see as an opportunity to be heard on residential growth.
“Schools are extremely important to maintain and keep strong,” said Baxter resident Sal DeMarco. “My concern isn’t about that.”
DeMarco moved here five years ago, with daughters already grown past school age. He sees schools as vital to a community, so vital that a no vote would force the district and municipal planners to come together and address residential growth.
“By saying no, we’re basically sending a message,” DeMarco said. “Everybody’s interested in good schools. If we say ‘no,’ that’s going to make people stop and say, ‘whoa.’”
DeMarco has specific concerns, like whether an swim center should be included; but chief among them are what he calls “unreasonable” and “unrestrained” community growth.
“My concern is about the crazy growth planning, or lack thereof,” he said. “We’re basically enabling bad behavior.”
Arthur Kuhn, a Fort Mill resident for nearly 25 years, has children at Doby’s Bridge Elementary School and Fort Mill Middle School. His concerns with the bond are economic.
“A single rental property, my personal property and my vehicle, I paid $5,787 in school taxes last year,” Kuhn said.
That cost includes state and municipal taxes. While a change in state law shifted public school funding from residential property owners to an increase in the sales tax, owners of commercial property, including vacation and rental homes, are still taxed to help pay for public school operations. Financing capital projects such as new school construction falls on all property owners.
Kuhn said the issue of rentals isn’t being discussed, and increased taxes could lead to people who can’t afford Fort Mill moving away without anyone coming in to rent their homes.
“They’re creating an issue,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of empty houses.”
Kuhn hears of other areas instituting residential building moratoriums, and believes Fort Mill needs one before it needs this bond package.
“It doesn’t mean they can’t place restrictions in place,” he said.
Donna Sigman came to Fort Mill 18 years ago.
Her then-elementary school-age sons are now Fort Mill High School graduates.
Sigman’s no vote isn’t aimed solely at the school district, but at what she sees as a wider problem.
“It’s the continuation of a process where entities involved in growth in this whole area do not communicate, and leave a problem for another entity in the school board to have to deal with,” Sigman said.
Issues like an unclear plan for the proposed aquatic center bother Sigman, as do what she calls scare tactics from supporters.
“If we have to put some mobile units out at the schools, that’s not going to permanently scar anybody,” she said.
Sigman is bothered by “growth negligence” and wants to see municipalities, the school district and anyone else impacted by community growth sit down and hammer out a larger plan. Otherwise present issues will linger.
“The school is not going to suffer. The entire community just needs to get smarter.”
With Fort Mill officials looking at impact fees on new construction, and state Rep. Raye Felder working to exempt schools from paying such fees, Sigman sees potential for growth solutions. She just wants to see municipalities and groups like the school district to sit down together to create a wider vision.
“Let’s just give it time to work its way through,” Sigman said.
She does feel this bond has more people questioning it than past ones.
“It’s a combination of the price tag and the massive amount of development people are seeing everywhere,” Sigman said. “It’s got people upset.”
John Marks • 803-547-2353