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Boom & Balance

As Charleston area sees explosive growth, school districts struggle to keep up

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Explosive growth in the Charleston region has led to jam-packed cafeterias, overcrowded hallways and congested classrooms. Pictured is Cane Bay Plantation, located within one of the fastest-growing areas in Berkeley County. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

As thousands of new families move to the Charleston area each year, the resulting population boom has had a profound impact on schools.

The influx of new students over the past decade has led to classrooms in trailers, overcrowded hallways, jam-packed cafeterias and teachers left with no space to call their own.

With new neighborhoods and apartment complexes continuing to take shape, school districts across Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties have been forced to take disruptive measures, such as redrawing attendance lines and implementing enrollment caps, just to keep schools’ capacity under control.

Some residents are worried that without a more permanent solution, such as the construction of more schools, these stopgap measures will only hurt students in the long run.

But designing, planning and building new school facilities takes years to complete, and securing funding to build multimillion-dollar projects in advance of projected growth is a difficult and complicated task.

This past school year, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced students and teachers to shift to online learning, nearly 20 schools across the region were overcrowded. 

Dozens more were at or near capacity. 

As a result of the pandemic, schools are noticeably less congested this year. To accommodate for the recommended 6 feet of social distancing, districts have created reopening plans that severely limit how many students are allowed inside at once. 

Still, it’s only a matter of time before all students return to the classroom in person. When that happens, districts will need to, once again, juggle the demands caused by the area’s explosive growth.

The influx of new homeowners has led some to wonder how much longer residents are going to be willing to approve tax increases designed to fund new schools.

In order to keep up, some districts have agreed to build schools near large megadevelopments in exchange for a property donation. 

Some residents remain skeptical of the public-private partnerships. Others see it as one of the only ways to relieve the school overcrowding dilemma.

No guarantees

Katie Polk and her husband decided to purchase a house in Cane Bay in 2018 specifically because of the glowing reputation of the area’s school system.

The suburban community is one of the fastest growing in Berkeley County, spurred by the creation of three mega-developments near the intersection of U.S. 17A and 176. 

Cane Bay Elementary, Middle and High create a cohesive campus that can guide a child from preschool to their high school graduation. The Berkeley County School District built the schools on 160 acres of land donated by Cane Bay’s developer, Gramling Brothers Real Estate & Development.

When she moved in, Polk was certain her daughter, an incoming kindergartner, would have an automatic spot at the elementary school less than 2 miles from her new home.

But severe overcrowding in the neighborhood schools meant that incoming kindergarten students were not guaranteed a seat, thanks to newly implemented enrollment caps.

Instead, these students were selected using a game of chance.

In May, numbered slips of paper pulled out of a glass bowl determined who got a spot at the elementary school and who did not. After the lottery, Polk’s daughter sat at No. 47 on the waitlist.

She contemplated homeschooling but said it wasn’t a viable option for her daughter, who thrives in social situations. Expensive tuition meant private school wasn’t an option either.

The Ponds

Construction workers build a new house at The Ponds subdivision in Summerville Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. This area is one space where Dorchester District 2 Superintendent Joe Pye said the district is seeing some of the most pronounced growth. Brad Nettles/Staff

As a result, her family was forced to adhere to the district’s plan and send their daughter to Westview Elementary, a Goose Creek school about 20 minutes away.

Polk is still optimistic that her daughter might eventually be brought off the waitlist and offered a spot at Cane Bay in the coming months. If that does happen, her family will face a difficult choice: Relocate their daughter to a school nearby or leave her at the same place where she’s already settled in and made friends.

It’s hard to say who’s to blame for the disruptive enrollment caps, Polk said.

“I think builders are building because people are moving. There's a need for it, so they keep building. I think the district should have accounted for the building boom, because, obviously, you can see all these houses are being built,” she said. “So I think a little bit of everybody is at fault.”

Widespread disruption

Cane Bay Middle was built for 900 students when it opened in 2012. Seven years later, enrollment is nearly 1,400 and counting.

Dozens of families living in the once-rural residential community have reported frustrations with the district’s attempts to alleviate school overcrowding in the rapidly growing Berkeley County community.

Concerns include overcrowded school buses and changes to attendance lines that allow students living several miles away to successfully enroll but exclude some living across the street from school property.

Crowding has also had a profound impact on some of the district’s teachers.

Last school year, more than one out of every three teachers at the middle school did not have a permanent classroom to call their own.

Instead, they floated from space to space throughout the day, often using backpacks and carts to move their supplies and belongings.

While Cane Bay is one area where the growth is most pronounced, the district’s total enrollment has also rapidly expanded in recent years.

Over the past decade, the district has consistently seen an additional 750 to 1,000 students enroll each year, said school board member David Barrow.

Overall population in the county has surged, too, growing from just under 178,900 in 2010 to more than 221,000 in 2018, according to census data.

Barrow has seen the area grow from a “relatively small school district” to one of the largest in the state.

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A West Ashley High School student walks past construction at the West Ashley Center For Advanced Studies building on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Relieving pressure

District officials maintain that all of the recent changes are designed to be temporary.

What the area desperately needs, parents say, is to build more schools.

Last year, four Berkeley County School District buildings were over capacity. 

District spokeswoman Katie Tanner said in a statement that the district is "well-positioned" to tackle the hot spots of growth via the construction of several new schools over the next five to seven years. 

Much of the rapid growth in Berkeley County is the result of an influx of new big business and the resulting job opportunities, including those at the large Volvo and Mercedes-Benz manufacturing plants. 

According to a report from the Regional Economic Analysis Laboratory at Clemson’s Strom Thurmond Institute, the school district’s student population of about 32,000 could skyrocket to 55,000 by 2035. In order to manage this growth, researchers projected the district would need to build at least 20 schools by that point.

Over the past five years, the school district has opened four new elementary schools, one new middle school and one new high school.

Renovations to increase capacity at existing schools have also been completed at Mt. Holly Elementary, Marrington Middle, Goose Creek High and Stratford High. 

The district’s strategic master plan calls for the construction of two new elementary schools and two new middle schools that, once constructed, would serve a total of 4,100 elementary and middle school students.

One of those projects is already in the works. A K-8 school in Cane Bay’s Carnes Crossroads community near Roper Hospital, will be funded, in part, due to developer impact fees. 

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A construction worker walks through the main entrance of the West Ashley Center For Advanced Studies building on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. Once opened, the new building will be able to host 600 students from across West Ashley, Johns Island and St. Paul's. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Under the agreement between BCSD and Daniel Island Development Co., new homebuyers will pay a fee that will go directly toward the creation of the new neighborhood school. 

Upon completion, the Carnes Crossroads school will immediately relieve enrollment pressures at several buildings that are over capacity. 

But funding hurdles have left the status of the other new schools temporarily on hold for now, Barrow said. 

School districts typically rely on bond referendums or sales tax hikes to fund the construction of new schools.

Berkeley County, a fiscally conservative area where a majority of voters have supported Republican presidential candidates for decades, has overwhelmingly passed several referendums in recent years to fund new schools.

But board members and education advocates say this model of funding isn’t sustainable in the long run.

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It’s unknown how much longer working-class residents will continue to vote in favor of the tax hikes to support the surge of new families. 

The district will also soon start construction to add additional classroom space at Sangaree Middle and Cane Bay Middle. When they open next fall, both projects will improve the overcrowding, but neither will fully contain the growth.

A balancing act

Schools in Dorchester District 2 have also faced overcrowding hurdles of their own, prompted by recent growth near Summerville, an area adjacent to Berkeley County that’s grown in recent years from a small-town vacation and retirement community to a hub of development. 

Almost all of the district’s six middle schools were either at capacity or overfilled last school year. All three high schools were also at capacity.

The district opted to rezone some 350 elementary and middle school students to alleviate some of the overcrowding. The decision prompted pushback from parents who argued that the changes were disruptive and unfair. 

The demand for new schools has started to level off, said Superintendent Joe Pye, at least for now. “For so many years, the growth was phenomenal,” he said.

Seven years ago, almost every one of the district's school buildings were overcrowded.

“We would build three or four or five schools, and I would tell the public we’re still five short. That’s not the case right now,” he said. “We kind of have a breathing period.”

Pye has earned a rapport among the Dorchester community as a hard-working, charming Southerner who is fiercely passionate about public education.

Since he started as the district’s leader more than two decades ago, Pye has overseen the creation of 10 new schools, an adult education center and several expansion wings to increase capacity at multiple buildings.

Despite the momentary lull in student growth, the urgency of the situation is not lost on Pye. 

He’ll need to retire eventually. When that happens, he wants to ensure that he’s left the district in good shape in preparation for future crushing waves of growth. 

The district remains focused on building new schools proactively so that Pye’s legacy alleviates the strain on future superintendents and school leaders. 

"If all of a sudden a company moves here and 10,000 people decide to come overnight and we’re flooded once again ... we can be better prepared," he said. 

The growth is starting to pick back up, Pye said, likely due to the boom of elementary school children several years ago who are now starting middle and high school.

To alleviate some of the congestion, construction on a new middle school near Beech Hill Road will start in January. The school, which will host 1,000 students, is expected to be completed in time for the August 2022 school year.

It’s likely that a new high school will also be needed in the near future, Pye said, but the district hasn’t yet finalized how it will fund a new facility.

The Beech Hill school, estimated to cost the district around $34 million to complete, was funded in large part due to developer impact fees. 

The district has projected a need for at least five more new schools moving forward, although none of them are urgent needs, Pye said, other than the middle school project that’s already underway.

Managing the growth hasn’t been easy. 

For years, the district had to forgo additional programs at its schools, since every inch of space was needed for classrooms. 

That isn't the case any more, he said, in large part due to the district’s recent technology initiative. 

In the digital era, computer labs within schools have largely become a thing of the past. 

A recent push to issue a computer or tablet to every District 2 student has allowed the district to convert more than 100 computer labs into classrooms. 

Combined, this space is the equivalent of at least three elementary schools.

Unlike Charleston County, it’s not feasible for District 2 to rely exclusively on sales tax referendums to fund new schools.

But Pye knows residents are also wary of continuous tax hikes. 

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. 

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Construction is ongoing at the West Ashley Center For Advanced Studies building on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Room to grow

Across the tri-county area, real estate companies have donated or sold land to local districts to help remedy overcrowding, treating schools like amenities that benefit the developments. 

As a result of the rapid growth, these kinds of land agreements have become more popular in recent years. 

These public-private partnerships could be one solution to the strain rapid growth puts on school infrastructure.

Gramling Brothers Real Estate & Development, one of the biggest developers in Berkeley County, donated land to build a new public charter school in Cane Bay that will likely siphon some students away from the bustling neighborhood school.

Berkeley Preparatory Academy, set to open next fall, will serve some 750 elementary and middle school students.

"We’re giving everyone a choice of not being overcrowded," said Stewart Weinburg, president of the Berkeley Charter Education Association. 

Hanahan Councilman Michael Sally pointed to Mevers School of Excellence, a public charter school in Goose Creek, as one example of how public-private partnerships can shave millions of dollars off the price tag of building a new school. 

“Until we start gaining more of an acceptance of those kinds of partnerships ... how are we going to be able to spend twice as much money for school, build it in twice as much time and continue to keep up with this?” he said.

While land donations are more prevalent in Berkeley and Dorchester schools, Charleston County has also partnered with a developer to help fund and construct a new building designed to ease the area's growing pains.

Carolina Park Elementary was opened in 2017 following a land donation to the school district by a developer of the same name. 

The Mount Pleasant school enabled the district to ease overcrowding at Laurel Hill Primary, Charles Pinckney Elementary and Park West Elementary, said Charleston County School District’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Borowy.

The school was originally built to house 900 or so students. When it first opened in 2017, about 600 students were enrolled.

“People thought, 'You built this school too big.' And we said, 'Nope, it’s coming.' And it came quick,” he said. 

Two years later, the school’s enrollment grew by nearly 250 students. The district projects this area of Mount Pleasant will see the biggest influx of student growth over the next three to five years and has recommended that the district renovate the school so it can house more students. 

Land donations are easy to negotiate if the developer knows the school will be an investment for the entire neighborhood, Borowy said. 

But if a neighborhood isn't expected to fill an entire school, things get complicated. 

"It’s very hard for a developer to give up the price tag that goes with the land if not all the benefit goes to the kids in that neighborhood," Borowy said. 

The district has completed 16 building projects to increase the number of available student seats over the past five years. Last year, 12 of the district's 80 or so schools were operating over capacity.

While growth seems to have leveled off over the past two to three years in Charleston County, Borowy said, the district also needs to focus its attention on renovating its existing buildings. 

He keeps on his desk a copy of a 1997 investigation by The Post and Courier that detailed how many of the district’s facilities had fallen into disarray. It serves as a reminder of how far the district has come.

Schools have long served as gathering spaces, meeting hubs, even cultural spaces for their surrounding communities.

The influx of new families has undoubtedly put a strain on the region's education system. But with new developments still materializing, growth in the Charleston area won’t be slowing down any time soon.

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

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