The School District of Pickens County trustees have moved ahead with a plan to close two elementary schools and consolidate affected students into other schools. The newly approved plan will close A.R. Lewis and Holly Springs elementary schools.
In an effort to save nearly $12 million in its capital needs and general fund, trustees had entertained the idea of consolidating four elementary schools, closing three of them in the process.
However, the issue of school buildings, capital needs and expenses has been a longstanding one in Pickens County, most recently coming in 2007 when the board issued bonds for $377 million to rebuild four high schools, renovate four of the five middle schools and build two elementary schools, along with the construction of a career and technology center.
Now, the district is staring at more than $34 million in capital needs — ranging from roof repair to heating, ventilation, air conditioning replacement at most of its older schools — over the next five years, with no funds to complete those needs.
“The building program was a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” said John Eby, district public information specialist. “The district never had a recurring revenue source to deal with capital needs.”
The trustees’ facilities committee met to determine how the district can pay for the remaining capital needs. The district already set a millage of 52.8 for capital improvement or debt service, and board members were not interested in raising that mill levy, of which a mill generates approximately $444,448 in revenue, for the purpose of fixing items that are starting to break down. Using the current mill value, the district could set that mill levy at 58, which would generate enough to stave off consolidation.
Phillip Bowers, board member and facilities committee chairman, said the 2007 building program was “extremely poorly planned and implemented” as the board at the time used a plan to “mortgage our current facilities to borrow money for that program.” In response, the S.C. General Assembly passed a law that capped the amount a district can borrow in correlation to assessed value.
“That sucked all of the life out of the taxpayers, and we are paying $2 million a month on the bond payment,” Bowers said. “With so much debt over our heads, as a taxpayer and board member, I can’t go and raise taxes on people again.”
The facilities committee’s initial plan would have closed A.R. Lewis Elementary, Holly Springs Elementary and Ambler Elementary. It would also make Hagood Elementary a K-2 school while moving third through fifth grades to Pickens Elementary. Students currently going to Lewis and Holly Springs would attend either Hagood or Pickens, depending on their grade level, while students at Ambler Elementary would attend Dacusville Elementary, which would become a K-4 school while Dacusville Middle School would house grades five to eight.
The new plan keeps Ambler Elementary, Hagood Elementary and Dacusville schools away from consolidation or closure.
The schools being considered are all under the district’s recommended capacity, and the projected enrollment at those schools is only expected to go down, according to the district. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the population in Pickens County has decreased by 12.6% for those 14 years of age and under and 15.6% for those 25 to 44.
In all, the new consolidation plan will save the district $2 million in capital needs and $6.5 million in general fund savings over a five-year period, coupled with $3.2 million in recurring bond proceeds developed when the board refinanced the $377 million in bonds. The recurring money will last until approximately 2033 when the bond is expected to be retired.
But, the problem is that it still won’t be enough to pay for the capital needs the district said it will have. According to figures from the district, there are about $35 million in capital needs over the next five years, even with the closure of the two schools. With no consolidation, the district was looking at $37.4 million in capital needs. Regardless, even with consolidation, the district will face a capital needs shortfall of more than $7 million. The shortfall would have been $19 million with no consolidation.
“The per pupil funding from the state was cut dramatically when the economy was bad and that has not been restored,” Bowers said. “Our hope is that by consolidation and the state Legislature restoring funding, we can make up that difference.”
Bowers said if the state raises its aid to Pickens County, $100 would generate up to $2 million in additional funding. But, there is a risk the board takes by relying on an increase in state funding.
“There are some things that we don’t want to put off, but we can,” Bowers said. “We have to keep our buildings dry and our students warm, and we have to find a way to do that.”
Eby said the district is budgeting approximately $750,000 per year in savings from absorbing employees through attrition. He said the district does not plan to reduce staff regardless of a consolidation decision.
Some of the largest capital needs items include $1.37 million for roof replacement at Hagood Elementary, $756,000 to replace the HVAC at Hagood, $540,000 for HVAC replacement at Holly Springs Elementary, $650,000 for HVAC replacement at Ambler and $1.2 million for HVAC replacement at A.R. Lewis Elementary.
Consolidation or no consolidation, Bowers said the next five years are critical for the district to get through.
“We have to manage our money very closely, and once we get these bonds paid off, we will get out of this mess,” Bowers said. “The chickens have come home to roost because we have been pushing out work that is $8 million annually, and it is catching up to us.”
Reach Matthew Clark at 864-235-5677, ext. 107, or @matthewclark76 on Twitter.