Fort Mill schools propose $226M bond referendum for new buildings

Fort Mill school officials want to ask voters for permission to borrow more than $226 million over the next five years to build new facilities – including a new high school and a new middle school – and to renovate existing buildings.

School district residents would be asked to raise their own taxes to pay off the debt. If a referendum passes, the owner of the average home – worth about $230,000, according to the York County Assessor’s Office – would pay about $277 more a year in property taxes.

Superintendent Chuck Epps asked the school board Tuesday night to schedule a bond referendum as early as May 5.

The money would pay for a new high school, a new middle school, other new facilities and renovations, Epps said, which are necessary to keep up with Fort Mill’s rapidly growing student population.

“We think we can justify the request,” he said.

A little more than half of the $226.6 million Epps proposed would pay to build the district’s third high school, which would cost $118.8 million and would need to open by the 2019-2020 school year. That’s when Nation Ford and Fort Mill high schools are projected to reach capacity.

The new high school would open with a classroom capacity of 1,800 students, with the ability to increase capacity to 2,400. It would be built on a 102-acre site the district already owns on the Fort Mill Bypass.

A new middle school, which would cost $45.6 million, would be built on land the district already owns on Pleasant Road, next to Pleasant Knoll Elementary School.

The proposed referendum also would pay for:

• New buses

• Renovations on existing schools

• Land for future school sites

• Technology improvements

• Additional renovations to Fort Mill High School

• A new teacher and staff training and support center

• A new aquatics center.

The proposed referendum was developed by a committee of school administrators, school board members, community members and the district’s head of construction. Committee members based their plan on a 10-year facilities study the district unveiled in November.

The referendum would only address the district’s needs for the next five years, Epps said. The district would need to schedule another referendum to address other needs identified in the 10-year facilities study.

In that study, the district estimated its enrollment, currently about 12,000 students, would grow to about 20,000 students by the 2023-2024 school year – when this year’s kindergartners will be ninth-graders. In the next 10 years, at current growth levels, the district estimated almost $400 million in new construction and continued maintenance costs.

If growth keeps up with current projections over the next five years, Fort Mill – geographically the smallest school district in the state – could have the highest enrollment of York County’s four school districts. Rock Hill is currently the largest district in the county, with almost 18,000 students.

The Fort Mill district currently has 17,020 homes, but is projected to add as many as 12,000 homes in the next four to six years.

Several school board members had questions about the specifics of the referendum, but they commended committee members for their work.

“We’re just reacting to the growth,” said board member Diane Dasher, who echoed Epps’ comments that Fort Mill needs to maintain the quality of its school system.

Board Chairman Patrick White pointed out that if any of the projects were not completed for any reason, the district would not retain that money. All borrowed money would be project-specific, he said.

Epps asked the board to take a final vote by Feb. 17 – the latest the board could approve the referendum to allow for a May 5 vote. State law requires a 75-day window between approval of a referendum and putting the question to voters.

State law also prevents the district and school board members from publicly advocating for or against the referendum, and no public dollars could be used to promote it. Instead, four volunteers, who served on the referendum committee, would head up efforts to gather public support.

The public will be able to give feedback directly to board members and through the district’s website.