Schools are top priority

The consensus appears to be growing in Fort Mill: New schools are necessities; new athletic facilities are extras.

That, essentially, was the finding of a community committee that has been studying prospects for a school bond referendum. Last month, the committee recommended a bond package totaling $98 million that would include two elementary schools to open in 2011 and a middle school to open in 2010.

But proposed athletic facilities, including an ancillary gym for Fort Mill and Nation Ford high schools and a football stadium for Nation Ford, might be considered separately on the ballot. Fort Mill schools Superintendent Keith Callicutt supports that approach.

He said this week that, although the athletic facilities are important, the community can't afford to delay building the schools. Separating the athletic facilities on the ballot would give voters a chance to choose.

That, we think, is a sensible proposal. It would give voters an opportunity to weigh the merits of a second high school stadium and the two gyms but also would improve chances that the new schools would be approved. Opposition to a new stadium wouldn't sink the whole package.

Some district officials argue that the gyms should be defined as part of the academic package because they would be used for a variety of purposes. An extra indoor gym at each high school would accommodate physical education classes, varsity and junior varsity sports, ROTC, school assemblies and other activities, particularly those held during the winter months.

That reasoning makes sense. But the new $8.7 million stadium could be a harder sell, and if it doesn't pass, both football teams still could play in the Fort Mill High School stadium.

Deciding not to build a second stadium might be disappointing to students who attend the new high school. It would be tougher for Nation Ford's football team to forge its own identity if it had to play home games at the FMHS stadium.

Voters will have to weigh the pros and cons. Again, though, the fate of the entire bond package should not hinge on approval of a new stadium.

Too much is at stake regarding the necessary new schools. If the Fort Mill school district can't keep pace with growth, its existing schools, already taxed, soon would be overwhelmed.

Fort Mill's is the fastest-growing school district in the state, with 1,580 new homes occupied over the past year. In July alone, 320 new homes were built.

Ten-year projections call for a third high school by 2013 at the latest, possibly by 2011. The district also will have to cope with $31 million in deferred maintenance expenses within five years. That probably will entail another bond election in two or three years.

Voters may decide that, despite those pressing demands, they still want a new stadium for Nation Ford High School. But we think district officials are smart to give them a choice, which would improve the odds for approval of the new schools.