Dorchester District 2 seeks $275 million

brad nettles/staff Knightsville Elementary School Principal Wally Beard makes his way out of the basement of the original 1939 building after checking an old well that was used for water when the school was built. The school has had additions and renovations over the years to help cope with growth in the area, but they now use 20 mobile classrooms to handle the 1,050 students.

Dorchester District 2 wants more than a quarter billion dollars to ease overcrowded schools, bring old schools up-to-date and make room for the expected influx of students in the next several years.

“We know ($275 million) is astronomical,” said Superintendent Joe Pye. “Obviously, the list has to be prioritized.”

The district is trying to decide whether to ask voters to approve a November bond referendum that could either increase property taxes or add a penny to sales tax.

Voters have not approved a bond referendum for District 2 since passing a $25.5 million vote in March 1995 to renovate Summerville High School and turn the Gregg campus into a middle school.

A $98 million referendum in March 2003 failed, and in March 2009 the board shelved a $165 million bond referendum, fearing a lack of support.

Even without help from bonds, the district has built four elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.

But renovations and improvements to existing schools have been on an as-needed basis, said Don Altman of Thompson Turner Construction, a consultant hired by the school system to perform a facilities assessment.

Two schools in the district pre-date World War II — Rollings Middle School of the Arts (1924) and Knightsville Elementary (1938). Four others were built more than 50 years ago.

“We have children going to schools that other districts would tear down,” Pye said. “We've been very prudent and efficient, but we've run out of ideas and now we have no choice but to go to the public and ask for help.”

A facilities assessment shows that the district needs to build six new schools — four elementary, one middle and one high — and renovate 15 if it is to keep up with the growth expected in the next five years, according to Altman. The study did not consider “systems upgrades” such as windows and roofs that are needed at many of the schools.

“The district, even in an economic downturn, is still growing,” said Altman. “That overcrowding will only get more intense as the economy turns around.”

The district's elementary schools are now over capacity by 1,536 students, based on a plan that would limit them to 800 students each, officials said. Some of the schools, such as Beech Hill and Knightsville, have more than 1,100 students.

In addition, a 2010 study predicted that the district could grow by 1,435 elementary students in the next five years, requiring the four new schools, Altman said.

The proposal also calls for moving Rollings to a new location and expanding its enrollment to 1,000 and building a new, 1,500-student technology magnet high school to ease overcrowding at the district's three other high schools. The magnet school would not have athletic facilities because students would compete for their home schools.

It is unclear yet how a bond referendum would affect homeowners, but district Chief Financial Officer Allyson Duke has estimated that for each $50 million in bonds, property taxes on a $100,000 house would increase by about $24 a year. In addition, Dorchester County Council is considering asking voters to approve a 1 percent local-option sales tax that could add $8 to the property taxes on a $100,000 home.

Neighboring Berkeley County School District also is in the process of putting together a $250 million bond campaign to finance new schools and renovate old ones.

The District 2 board has said it hopes to decide by August whether to have the referendum.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or