Aging schools, overcrowding big issues as district plans for future

Grand Strand

Student enrollment in Horry County schools has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, and this year alone, enough students joined the district to fill an entire school.

A new Horry County Schools growth forecast predicts it will add nearly 5,000 new K-12 students over the next five years. That number is equivalent to nearly 200 new classrooms.

District leaders know it’s a reality they have to face, but they’ll have to do it while balancing the issue of aging schools across the county.

“It’s a challenge – no question about it,” said Horry County Schools Facilities Committee Chairman Neil James.

Board member Janet Graham wants to draw attention to schools in the Conway area, where parts of some are more than six decades old.

“It’s Conway’s time,” she explained. “And I’m going to push as much as I possibly can to get that done because you can’t let other areas suffer. Conway has a need I feel is urgent and it really needs to be looked into and taken care of.”

Graham says some buildings – including South Conway Elementary and Whittemore Park Middle School – have sections more than 60 years old. Whittemore Park Middle, specifically, has a history of ventilation, moisture, temperature and traffic issues. The school is also running out of room to expand and accommodate student population growth.

She says Conway High School is in need of “major” renovations, as well. Graham started talking to the district last year about her concerns.

“We don’t have the capacity issues that some of the other areas may have, like Carolina Forest,” she explained. “We have aging buildings, and that is major. So although some people have capacity issues and are bursting at the seams .. we have serious issues just the same.”

But Graham is competing against areas of the district that need buildings due to overcrowding and population growth.

According to Horry County Schools functional capacity estimates, 10 schools are at or over functional capacity for the 2017-2018 year. In five years, the district expects it’ll have 49,003 students enrolled in classes. By that time, the district thinks 22 of its schools will be projected to be at or above capacity.

It is important to note, though, that several schools at under 80 percent capacity, including Ocean Bay Middle School, Aynor High School, Loris High School and St. James Intermediate.

“Unfortunately, the growth is not even across the county,” James said. “It’s not in a uniform growth pattern. It’s in pockets.”

The district expects more than 75 percent of the total projected student growth to happen in the Carolina Forest, St. James, Socastee and North Myrtle Beach attendance zones.

James, Graham and a committee of fellow board members and school leaders must now consider the two pressing issues as it helps shape the district’s future. Last month, the committee was presented with more than $750 million worth of potential projects to consider in a draft capital improvement plan – also known as “The 5 Year Plan.” Projects included address capacity and growth needs, aging facilities, building upgrades, athletic improvements and grounds projects.

James admits the district can’t accommodate all of the projects on that list with the amount of funding available.

“It’s going to be a matter of trying to balance what is the most pressing need – whether it’s growth and capacity. Whether it’s enhancing a school that’s in need of repairs,” he explained.

While the district dwindles down its list of potential projects, it also has to consider how to pay for them. It has three options to consider – a pay as you go option, utilizing a current 8 percent debt capacity of $53 million, or requesting a $150 million bond referendum. The Educational Capital Sales Tax – which has helped fund several recent projects – will also be up for renewal in November 2022.

“We can only borrow up to a certain amount, and with the additional amount of schools we’ve built in the last couple of years, we have used up a lot of our available capital,” James said. “It’s our first preference not to raise taxes, but there may be a point in time where that’s our only option. We do have the sales tax that we’ve added, so that’s just around the corner. We need to start planning. Are we going to ask our citizens to renew that? If so, we need to start thinking about that.”

District leaders tell News13 they hope to have a better idea of which projects they’ll move forward with in the 5-year draft plan by the summer. Count on News13 to continue following this developing story.

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