SUMMERVILLE — Three years ago, Dorchester District 2 school officials were scrambling.
Their high school swim teams had previously used the College of Charleston's facilities to practice, but when the college announced at the end of 2015 it was shuttering the program, it left outdoor pools in Newington as the only place available to practice.
That wasn't acceptable to Superintendent Joe Pye. So he called up North Charleston mayor — Keith Summey after a potential partnership with the Summerville YMCA didn't pan out.
Before he knew it, Pye said the two had come up with a plan to partner to build a $20 million indoor aquatic center that would be paid for mostly by city funds, with the rest coming from a district-wide $7.5 million referendum.
The partnership, Pye said, allowed both the North Charleston community and District 2 students to gain a service that was desperately needed and couldn't have happened with either group's single budget.
"We don’t have that kind of money. I can’t be adding state-of-the art programs (on my own), I have to work with the basic programs," Pye said. "We’ve never had that luxury. By stretching out and having these partnerships, they’re getting us to a level that otherwise I couldn’t do with my budget."
Jaeson May, a former longtime swim coach in the district and current middle school administrator, said the aquatic center will draw in events locally and around the state that could be a boon to the region's economy.
What's more important is the power it has to shape water safety practices in the district, May said.
"It's going to be one of the best aquatic centers in the state right here in our backyard for us to utilize not only for our three high school swim teams to use for both practice and meets," he said. "But on top of that, I'm excited about the opportunity to conduct swim lessons for youth in our district. ... The need to know how to swim and be safe is paramount in the Lowcountry."
Pye said third-graders in the district would likely be the ones selected to use a week of P.E. classes to take swimming lessons.
The aquatic center, which is still under construction next to Fort Dorchester High School in North Charleston and scheduled to open in 2020, isn't the first time the district has partnered with a local municipality. Due to continuing budget constraints, Pye said it certainly won't be the last.
Battling budget concerns
South Carolina funds public education using a base student cost model — or a cost-per-student calculation — to provide districts their funding. In theory, if the base student cost is fully funded by the state Legislature, a school district would have the funds it needs to break even.
But legislators in the Palmetto State haven't fully funded the base student cost since 1997. And just since fiscal year 2007, the failure to fully fund school districts has cost Dorchester District 2 over $200 million.
The problems keep compounding. The base student cost for the 2019-20 school year should be $3,095 but is funded from the state at $2,487 — setting up a potential $20 million loss in the next budget cycle, according to a district presentation from May.
In the coming school year alone, the district is facing a multi-million dollar budget shortfall. Though the Dorchester County Council helped with that at its final budget reading Monday, where it approved an additional tax revenue that will provide the district $3.2 million.
These daunting statistics make it essential to find outside-the-box solutions to continue providing students with innovative programming and education, Pye said.
Moreover, it's how the district has continued to be highly rated and — as officials have frequently stated — continue to do more with less.
"That's the driving force for all of this," Pye said. "It’s all happened in the last few years. It’s really picked up because we’re spread so thin because of our budget."
Ashley Wimberly is the president of the district's PTA and has four boys in the District 2 system. The district's efforts in recent years to expand their student services through community partnerships, she said, shows that a lack of funding won't be a hindrance in providing a complete education.
"It shows they care about producing well-rounded, successful students. They care about the students as a whole," she said. "They have a world of possibilities right at their fingertips."
Building lasting partnerships
For the first time in his career, Pye said he recently worked on a task force that started from scratch and finished with a state-of-the-art building. In this case, the partners were career and technical education experts from Trident Technical College and officials from the state Department of Education. The finished product is a Career and Technology Education building that houses manufacturing programs at Summerville High.
Not only is the building beneficial to current students but also will aid recruiting efforts for trade companies that have rooted themselves in South Carolina such as Boeing and Volvo.
"It was quite an investment. I didn’t know how to make it happen, but we brought these people in and they talked about what the curriculum should be," Pye said. "Trident told us what they would need to recruit to their areas. Boeing told us what they wanted so people could be first in line to get jobs at their facilities."
While the money to build the CATE building came from the district's budget, what made the partnership work is the $750,000 in equipment that agencies on the task force donated.
"It opens up new horizons, and particularly in areas where the industries are indicating they have a greater need," Pye said.
And for parents like Wimberly, having state-of-the-art technology is an exciting prospect as her boys prepare to attend Summerville High School in the next few years.
"It makes me excited they’ll have access to that type of technology," she said. "We want to be able to provide the workforce for the industries moving into this area, and DD2 sees they need to be a part of that."
In the future, the partnership could evolve into using the building for night and weekend training courses for Trident, which Pye said is a natural transition.
One other area of collaboration Pye mentioned came in the Summers Corner Performing Art Center auditorium attached to Rollings Middle School of the Arts. A local developer was willing to provide the property and a good chunk of the funding and requested naming rights, Pye said, and there are already some 40 groups that have signed up to use it.
"It’s going to be drop-dead beautiful. It’s going to have amenities that no other auditorium in this part of the state has," Pye said. "Everything is just Broadway-type stuff."
In addition to the blossoming partnerships, the district has started having conversations with North Charleston about collaborating on a library that could be shared between students and the public. Those discussions are still preliminary, but the value of continued shared services has become clear over the years.
"We all see the benefit of coming together, and we all see that no one of us can afford to do these things alone," Pye said.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to include information that has been clarified. The land for a new auditorium in Summerville was provided by a local developer, not the town. Also, Dorchester District 2 Superintendent Joe Pye sought a swimming pool partnership with North Charleston after a potential partnership with the Summerville YMCA didn't pan out.