More than 736,000 students from kindergarten to high school started classes last August. And many students in the state’s metropolitan areas attended classes in new or renovated buildings.
Small-government advocates frequently throw around the word “Taj Mahal” to describe burgeoning construction by school districts.
And for good reason. Districts are shelling out millions in construction costs, often vacating dated buildings in favor of modern construction and technology. District officials argue the projects are more than merely cosmetic changes.
Districts in the state’s three largest counties by population—Greenville, Richland and Charleston—reported to the state Education Department in 2013 that six of their school buildings sat vacant, even as those districts are building new facilities. Statewide, districts reported 29 other vacancies that year. The agency plans to compile an updated list in September.
Greenville has no reason to retain vacant buildings, said Executive Director of Construction, Terry Mills. Its three vacant buildings on the agency’s list—Baker’s Chapel Elementary, Sue Cleveland Elementary, and the Teen Parent Building—have since been sold or are for sale by the district. Profits go into the capital building fund.
Other buildings—like Southside High School—are often repurposed for administrative and other district functions.
These older buildings don’t have the infrastructure needed to serve the modern student, according to a Greenville County School District spokeswoman.
And renovating dated structures is impractical. “It’s either impossible or impossibly expensive,” Beth Brotherton said.
A growing special needs population that requires accommodation and increased security measures in public schools are two of the reasons the district is building new facilities.
Population is also growing, driving a need for more goods and services. The state’s population in 2000 was just over 4 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2015, nearly 4.9 million people were reported as living in South Carolina.
Greenville County School District has approximately 76,000 students, including 500 students added this year. Much of the student population growth is fueled by the proximity of BMW and Michelin and by improvements to the downtown, Brotherton said.
The district is expanding along with the county’s population explosion.
In fiscal year 2015, Greenville put $12 million from its district Capital Projects Fund toward construction services. By contrast, Richland District 1 spent $6.4 million, and Charleston’s lone school district spent $104.1 million. Richland District 2 spent $9.7 million on buildings.
Greenville has overseen annually two major capital projects—from building projects to renovations—on average over the past five years. Some of those projects span multiple years, said Mills.
The district completed a four-year-long construction project in the last decade, rebuilding or renovating at least 70 area schools.
Currently underway are a 1,700-student expansion at J.L. Mann High School in Greenville and an expansion at Rudolph Gordon Elementary in Simpsonville. The district is expanding the elementary school to serve middle school students.
Greenville County School District
Approximately 76,000 pupils
$10,736-total per pupil funding*
$16,764-total per pupil funding*
$14,079-total per pupil funding*
Charleston County School District
$16,060-total per pupil funding*
Sources: census.gov; rfa.sc.gov; ed.sc.gov; comprehensive annual financial reports by school districts
*Estimates for fiscal year 2016, according to the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.