Fort Mill has $700 million in school needs. How much might go on a bond next year?

In the next decade, the Fort Mill School District projects almost $700 million in new school construction, land, facility and other needs, costs that would be decided by referendum.

The school board recently heard the case for a $203 million bond next year to cover shorter-term needs. They include a new middle school, an early childhood development center and more than $50 million in land acquisition, technology and large renovations.

The bond wouldn’t include a $67 million for an elementary school. That will be funded through development impact fees. Additional facilities are needed because of expected rapid growth in some neighborhoods.

“I think we knew it was coming,” said board chairwoman Kristy Spears, “but now it’s in black and white in front of us.”

Fort Mill will build a new, bigger elementary school. This is how much it’ll cost

The board hasn’t approved a bond referendum vote, date or amount. Here are some key takeaways from a recent update by construction consultant Leitner Management Group.

Fort Mill student growth

The school district had 18,401 students on the 45th day of school, in October. Day 45 is a standard used to measure enrollment statewide. Since 1998 the district has grown at a pace of about 600 students per year. The district updates its 10-year projections annually using an outside consultant, the Catawba Regional Council of Governments.

The district has 20 schools. Capacity at the elementary schools is 10,400 with 8,396 students now. Middle school capacity is 5,600 with 4,441 students. High school capacity is 7,200 with 5,564 students now. Elementary enrollment is projected to exceed capacity by the 2027-’28 school year, followed by middle schools in 2028-’29 and high schools in 2029-’30.

The district has four frozen schools, which is a school near capacity prompting any new students to be assigned to another facility with more space. Gold Hill and Springfield elementary schools are frozen, as are Gold Hill and Pleasant Knoll middle schools. All four are at 90% capacity or higher.

Elementary school No. 12 is under construction and should open in 2025. A seventh middle school is proposed, to open in 2026.

Riverview Elementary School is an anomaly. In the past year it grew by more than 100 students, about a sixth of what the entire district would expect in a year. Students from the Elizabeth neighborhood are zoned for Riverview. By year’s end that neighborhood will have more than 150 homes and townhomes. Another 200 are expected next year and a full build out plan of more than 1,300 homes, townhomes and apartments is expected.

“Some of the area, Elizabeth specifically, is growing faster,” said Jim Britton with Leitner Management Group.

Board members and district staff say the homes in Elizabeth are geared toward families of young children, and that Riverview also brings in students from other schools for special needs programs.

“It is an anomaly,” Britton said of Riverview growth above projections. “We’ve never really had this before.”

School needs and costs

The almost $700 million needed over the next 10 years includes a mix of funding options: a bond next year, any future bond, impact fees from new homes and apartments and borrowing based on the district’s budget size which is permitted by state law without a referendum.

“This includes all the new construction — three new elementary schools, three new middle, some land, technology,” Britton said. “It’s an all-inclusive long-range facility needs plan.”

Projections show a need for more schools than just the $67 million elementary school under construction now. They include two new elementary schools at 1,200 students each: One to open in 2029 (projected $76.6 million) and the other in 2032 ($83 million). The proposed new middle school ($86.6 million) by 2026 would, like the new elementary schools, be for 1,200 students. That capacity is up 200 students from prior models.

New high school capacity needs hits in 2029. Plans there could involve expansion of existing high school sites or program offerings to serve more students without constructing a new school. The equivalent of 400 seats of classroom space by 2029 would cost $23.6 million. Another 1,000 seats of space by 2031 has a proposed $108.7 million price tag.

“We’re not talking about a fourth high school, just so that nobody gets confused,” said board chairwoman Kristy Spears.

Also in the 10-year needs plan is a $64.2 million early childhood education center by 2027, a $44 million performing arts center by 2029, $35.6 million in land purchases, $40 million for technology, $24 million in continued maintenance and $46.8 million in deferred maintenance.

A $203 million bond would fund a new middle school, a new early childhood learning center on 34 acres donated by Clear Springs Land Co. and some of the land purchase, technology and renovation work from the larger 10-year list.

School district challenges

Despite ranking at the top for almost all elementary school test scores in the state by district, Fort Mill is one of the few that doesn’t offer state-funded full-day prekindergarten, also called 4K programs, said superintendent Chuck Epps.

There is a half-day program for 80 students at two schools, and a full-day state-funded program for 60 students at a third school based on need and risk assessment for kindergarten readiness. The district had more than 300 applications this school year and routinely has to turn away 100 or more families.

The district has a tuition-based 4K program at its high schools that serves 66 students and typically turns away about 100 students per year. Special education preschool programs are small, Epps said, at three schools.

Epps said the challenge for the district isn’t students at the top, but in the lower performance range. This year 54% of incoming students tested in the “ready” range for kindergarten. A new childhood education center would serve up to 1,200 students.

“Students who start behind often stay behind, leading to achievement gaps that are difficult to close,” Epps said.

Land is expensive and increasingly developed across the 53-square-mile school district. It’s the geographically smallest in the state. A new elementary school needs 20-25 acres, and a new middle school 35-40 acres. A high school takes 100-120 acres, something Britton said is a unicorn in Fort Mill and would put the school district up against developers if so large a site came open.

“That’s why we’re not going to have a fourth high school,” Epps said.

“Nowhere to put it,” Spears said.

The school district typically only changes school attendance zones when a new school opens. A challenge in redrawing lines, Epps said, is the growing number of homes and large neighborhoods in the small school district. New lines to balance growth hot spots could impact elementary schools across the district, for instance, or at a few places.

“We don’t know what it will look like,” Epps said.

Attendance line changes rank among the most contentious issues with parent concern about splitting neighborhoods. More schools mean more changes to impact more families.

“It’s getting more and more difficult every time we do it,” said board member Wayne Bouldin.

Schools take time to build, and the 2025-’26 school year projects to have at least four elementary and two middle schools over capacity.

The typical build time for a middle school is 33 to 36 months, Britton said. The one proposed would go on a graded site which could shorten that time. The school could open by the 2026 target if it’s approved to move forward by early to mid 2024.