The droves of people moving to the Lowcountry for the low cost of living and plentiful jobs aren’t coming alone.
Often those workers have families that include young children who will attend public schools. Of the more than 750,000 people who live in the region, about 22 percent are age 18 or younger, according to the Census Bureau.
That growth leaves school systems struggling to keep up as they strive to find funding, space and dozens of teachers to instruct those new students each year.
“Right now, we are trying to basically take inventory of what we have, and trying to find different ways to deal with the growth,” said Berkeley County Senior Associate Superintendent Deon Jackson.
In many cases, districts’ annual growth is enough to fill a new school.
This year, for instance, Berkeley planned for 800 new students, but 1,400 came.
“And Volvo hasn’t moved the first car off of their plant yet,” Jackson said of the carmaker that plans to bring 4,000 new jobs to the county and will roll out its first S60 sedan later this year. “At this rate, there is no doubt in our minds that yes, we are going to need additional schools at some point.”
Dorchester, on the other hand, got an unexpected break this year. After more than a decade of 400 to 1,000 additional students per year, only 149 new students enrolled in that district this year. Officials had planned for 600.
Predictably, the schools near new development are the most overcrowded.
Cane Bay elementary and middle schools near bustling Carnes Crossroads are currently under the biggest strain in Berkeley, and the Philip Simmons schools off Clements Ferry Road are expected to feel a pinch in coming years.
Dorchester 2’s crush is in the Knightsville area on the district’s northeast side, where Reeves Elementary and DuBose Middle share a campus.
“We have a lot of development coming that could impact those schools,” said Dorchester 2 Chief Financial Officer Allyson Duke.
Lack of funding
But those new houses don’t contribute to school districts’ operating budgets.
State law, Act 388, limits the kind of taxes a school district can levy, including a prohibition on taxing homeowner-occupied residential properties for operating expenses.
“They build all these houses, but we don’t benefit from the property taxes from them,” Duke said.
Property tax bills reflect an amount for the school operating budget that is then deducted as a credit.
“There’s still confusion,” Duke said. “A lot of people do not realize that they’re not paying school operating taxes. They see it on their tax bill and don’t look and see that school tax credit at the bottom.”
Funding for capital needs like new buildings or maintaining existing ones has to come from somewhere else, often special obligation bonds.
“What we are trying to do is make sure that we’re utilizing everything that we have to the fullest extent before we start building additional schools,” Jackson said.
Charleston County, which is also growing by about 1,000 students annually, funds its building program through a 1 percent sales tax. The district expects to collect $575 million to fund new school buildings and renovations through the tax, first approved in 2010 and renewed in 2014.
But Berkeley and Dorchester 2 have both turned to homeowners. In 2012, those districts floated “Yes 4 Schools” campaigns with an eye toward easing some of the overcrowding that existed then.
At the time, they said several schools housed hundreds more students than they could comfortably hold and students were being taught in trailers, work rooms and libraries.
Seventy percent of voters in Berkeley approved the ballot measure to fund a $198 million building program that added four new elementary schools and a high school, while Dorchester 2’s $179.9 million campaign to add three elementary schools and a magnet middle school of the arts passed by a 60-40 margin.
The measures added $102 on a $150,000 owner-occupied house in Dorchester County for 20 years. In Berkeley, homeowners paid $60 more on a $150,000 house the first three years, and are now paying $120 annually until 2023, when it goes back to $60 for another decade.
“The referendum was definitely a success,” Duke said. “If we didn’t have these new schools, I don’t know what we would have done.”
End of Yes 4 Schools
Both Berkeley and Dorchester 2 will see the end of their building campaigns this year. In August, Berkeley plans to open Bowens Corner and Foxbank elementary schools, and Dorchester 2 students will move into the new Rollings Middle School of the Arts.
The extra seats have helped some but not enough, officials said.
“We need more schools, that’s all there is to it,” said Duke.
In the 5½ years since the referendums were approved, Berkeley has grown by about 5,000 students to 35,192 this year. Dorchester has gone from 23,245 to 26,240.
“We’ve completed that building program, and the growth is still coming,” Jackson said. “We’ve made our adjustments; however, it’s still not sufficient. When you have a 900-student school opening up at 750 students, it doesn’t leave you much room, not the way that Berkeley County is growing.”
The county is outpacing even the aggressive predictions of a 2015 study by Clemson’s Strom Thurmond Institute that forecast the student population could skyrocket to 55,000 by 2035. That study called for 20 new schools in 20 years.
But aware that taxpayers are still putting money into the 2012 program, officials are doing everything they can to maximize space.
“We are not so certain that a referendum is the only solution,” Jackson said. “We’re working with the county government and working with our Legislature to figure out what’s the best way for Berkeley County to deal with the situation we have.”
The trailers the districts removed from schools a few years ago are now being added back. At DuBose, for instance, six additional units will be added to the 18 already there for next school year.
Dorchester is not yet talking about redrawing attendance lines — always a hot topic — but Berkeley is.
“Where do you move them? To a less overcrowded school?” said District 2 spokeswoman Pat Raynor.
Officials at both districts said they have a commitment not to increase class size, which can be a detriment to learning for students and a stress for teachers.
“Talk to just about any teacher, and they would rather have lower class sizes,” Duke said. “That’s probably more important to most of them than pay, really.”
Berkeley is looking at some unconventional ways to increase capacity, such as using a “college model” of office space or shared spaces in jam-packed high schools instead of assigning teachers to classrooms. That allows each class to be used every class period, in theory increasing capacity by 25 percent.
“We’re trying to use every resource that we have to the fullest before doing something that’s going to cause us to borrow more money,” Jackson said.
Although they aren't ruling out future referendums, both are aware that they may not get taxpayer support.
“We’re taking a collaborative approach because we are coming out of a building program that drew a lot of attention,” Jackson said. “We are definitely cognizant of that.”
Opposition to Berkeley's referendum led to a State Law Enforcement Division investigation and guilty pleas on ethics charges from former Superintendent Rodney Thompson and Communcations Director Amy Kovach.
In addition, in the aftermath of the investigation, authorities uncovered a scheme by former Chief Financial Officer Brantley Thomas to embezzle nearly $1 million from the district and shuffle money between accounts to cover up construction cost overruns of about $7.2 million.
Dorchester 2 was also sued over its referendum. In March 2017, Summerville lawyer Mike Rose filed a lawsuit claiming that the district broke state law and its own rules during the building campaign, leading to cost overruns, delays in opening new schools and shoddy work. That lawsuit is ongoing.