It was an enthusiastic crowd rallying for solutions to Dorchester District 2’s chronic shortage of schoolhouses.
Robby Robbins went to the podium, and in his attorney-like manner, got right to the summary point: “Anyone who doubts the need to solve this problem once and for all should pick a school and go visit.”
He’s right. Folks in District 2 are rightly proud of high-achieving public schools, but they tend to treat the over-crowded-schools problem as a nettlesome detail that implies higher taxes, and therefore should be ignored.
But spend time in any overcrowded public school, as Mr. Robbins suggests, and you’ll quickly sense the striking realities of too many students and not enough space — human traffic jams during class changes, teachers without home classrooms shuttling their carts from class to class, “lunch” periods beginning early in the morning.
A certain tension underlies what should be an orderly community of students, teachers and administrators. They must adapt and make the best of what we taxpayers have provided them.
So Superintendent Joe Pye and the District 2 board will ask voters next month to approve a $179.9 million school facilities improvements program. It’s a bold general-election plea to taxpayers for a property tax millage dedicated to funding a backlog of expansions and improvements.
It’s ambitious, for sure. And to the “no taxes for anything ever” crowd, it’s audacious. But Pye and his board believe they have a good case to make.
And they do.
Excellent public schools require at least adequate school capacities. That might seem obvious, but for more than a decade, Pye and others have warned of a critical disconnect between capacities and constantly growing enrollments — and higher goals of academic achievements. Limping along, Pye argues, will lead to erosion of the district’s admirable classroom-achievements record.
And that would be too bad. District 2 consistently ranks among South Carolina’s best public schools in academic performance. Its per-pupil spending rate ranks among our state’s lowest. That’s especially impressive for a school district that operates in Summerville and upper North Charleston, the fastest growing sections of South Carolina’s fastest growing county.
District 2 started the 21st century with critical overcrowding — and enrollment has increased by 51 percent since 2000. During that period, public school funding sources have been scrambled by legislative reforms in property tax calculations and the imposition of token impact fees, now tightly suspended in litigation.
District 2 managed to cobble together some funding to build four elementary schools, a middle school and a third high school. But Fort Dorchester Elementary School was severely over-crowded the very day it opened in 2002 and required 38 temporary classrooms at its Old Glory Lane campus. In 2008, Summerville and Fort Dorchester High Schools served more than 6,000 students. Today, 170 temporary “trailer” classrooms are used to supplement school capacities.
And District 2’s newest facility, the Joe Pye Elementary School, depicts almost perfectly the present and future challenge. The school sits neatly and uncrowded on its 24-acre campus on Patriot Boulevard. Directly across the street, a contractor pours concrete foundations for 320 residential apartments. This complex will front a 586-acre development that will include some 2,000 new homes. Clearly, the new school’s days as an uncrowded facility are numbered.
Crowded schools are not a big problem in South Carolina. Only a quarter of public schools operate beyond design capacities. Many have excess capacities. But District 2 has long been an exception to this trend. Homesteaders are attracted to thousands of new homes in sprawling neighborhoods in Summerville and North Charleston, and for those with children, the promise of District 2’s highly-rated public schools often makes the sale. The so-called Great Recession and the housing bust had little effect on this trend. Since 2008, attendance increased 38 percent.
The ballot proposition — tax increase and all — is supported by “Yes4Schools,” an energetic and growing advocacy group that includes several elected officials. Robbins is a co-chair.
“Decent facilities define the teaching and learning environment,” says Summerville Mayor Bill Collins. “This is a long overdue investment in our children and our community’s future ... it will pay dividends for generations to come.”
S.C. Rep. Jenny Horne’s children attend District 2 schools, and she’s supporting the initiative.
“We are doing this for our Nicholas and Maggie, and for our neighbors’ children and grandchildren,” Horne said. “We don’t want to pay more taxes — but this is what we should be doing with tax dollars ... education is definitely a prime function of government.”
Ron Brinson, a North Charleston City Councilman, is a former PTA officer in Dorchester District 2 schools. He is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at email@example.com.