Voters have an opportunity to go to the polls May 5 in a referendum called by the Fort Mill School District, which seeks approval to finance a capital program of up to $226 million to build two new schools, acquire land for future schools, purchase buses and address other needs necessitated by a tidal wave of new students. The plan includes other needs, such as technology upgrades.
Judging by the feedback we’ve received over the past few weeks, some residents decided from the moment the referendum was announced to vote no, and many others still are wrestling with their decision.
We support the district’s plan and hope a majority of voters do, too. Here’s why:
It seems apparent that most of the “vote no” crowd is neither anti-education nor has a bone to pick with the school board or the district’s administration. What they are upset about is the uncontrolled growth that created the need to accommodate a student population expected to swell from 13,000 to 20,000 by the end of this decade. They’re angry and they want to send a message that something has to be done to slow residential growth.
We get that. That’s why we’ve repeatedly called for a moratorium on new rezoning requests and building permits. The authorities responsible for that, the York County Council and the Fort Mill town and Tega Cay city councils, may one day come around to the idea – just as Lancaster County and the city of Rock Hill did – but so far, none of those municipalities seem inclined to make a move to slow the building boom. The reality is that residential growth will continue unabated. Not even the Great Recession, which created a drag on new-home building, was enough to slow growth entirely. Even during that lull, the Fort Mill School District had to open new schools, impose attendance freezes and shuffle students to keep some schools from reaching capacity sooner than expected.
As much as a “no” vote might be a way for frustrated residents to let off steam, it won’t have the intended effect. If the bond measure fails, thousands of new homes will still be built and the problems facing the school district are only exacerbated. The message the “vote no” crowd wants to send, however well-intended, will not be received by those officials responsible for growth.
Some residents have said that as much as it pains them, they want the measure to fail so Fort Mill schools do become impossibly overcrowded and eventually become less attractive. They correctly point out that the district’s reputation for excellence combined with its proximity to Charlotte is what lures so many new families. That strategy might work over time, but by then, thousands more homes would be built anyway.
Besides, does anyone really want to weaken the quality of education here? Once you go down that road, it’s difficult to come back – if ever. Under-performing schools might eventually divert the stream of new residents, but it also will deter new business investment. Fiscal hawks will be the first to tell you that a vibrant local economy depends on a broad commercial tax base and if you want proof, take a look at the Low Country communities where a lack of business investment contributed to poverty and “Corridors of Shame” schools. Also realize that there’s a reason Fort Mill attracts the best and brightest teachers. Why would we ever want to settle for second – or third – best?
Making it more difficult for the school district to educate the students now in its care ultimately only hurts those students and the hard-working teachers residents typically cheer. Then consider the even more daunting responsibility of educating an almost unfathomable 20,000 students. That’s about the same number of total residents currently living in Fort Mill and Tega Cay combined.
The school district does not have the option of turning those students away. If it can’t build new schools, it means a return to those ubiquitous trailers that dotted school campuses a decade ago. Ironically, those units cost about $70,000 each – the cost of hiring a teacher after benefits and other expenses. We imagine most residents would prefer the district spend its revenue on teachers rather than trailers.
Year after year the district proves itself a good steward of public money. The $7,700 it spends per pupil is well below the state average, yet Fort Mill schools consistently perform at the highest levels. It recently moved to save millions by re-financing a past growth-related debt, and the district’s healthy reserve fund allows it to enjoy a top credit rating and low interest rates.
The most contentious part of the bond package is $9.9 million to construct a swimming facility that would replace the Leroy Springs recreation complex pool used by the Fort Mill and Nation Ford high school swimming teams. However, district officials emphasize that it will move ahead with that project only if no viable alternative becomes available before the complex’s expected closing in just a few years. If it does build the facility, the district is seeking a community partner to handle daily operations and maintenance, and the Upper Palmetto YMCA, recently committed to a similar arrangement with Clover schools, already signaled its willingness to do the same here.
Last fall, we asked voters to support a slate of candidates for the Fort Mill School Board and all four of those candidates won. Voters trusted those candidates then, including three school board incumbents, and they should trust them now.
Vote yes May 5 to maintain the high standard of education in Fort Mill that never fails to make us proud.