District works to serve growing population

MONCKS CORNER — Three new schools and two renovation projects have been identified as the most urgent building needs facing the Berkeley County School District as officials try to keep pace with a projected spike in student enrollment.

Expected growth at the intersection of U.S. highways 17A and 176 in Goose Creek could bring more than 18,600 students and 11 schools as Parks of Berkeley, Cane Bay and other planned communities develop in the coming decades.

While that area remains a long-term priority for the district, officials are targeting Hanahan and Daniel Island as the section of the county most in need of immediate new schools. More than 6,550 additional students are projected to enroll in the Hanahan, Daniel Island and Cainhoy schools in the next three decades, and many of those approved subdivisions are coming online more quickly than the timetable for the Goose Creek developments.

Two other schools, Berkeley Elementary and Sangaree Middle, also will require

new additions as more room for students is needed in those buildings, district officials said. The construction of a new middle school in Cane Bay also is a priority for the upcoming years.

Berkeley already has several projects in the works in addition to the newly proposed needs. Cane Bay High School is scheduled to open in fall 2008; Cane Bay Elementary School is set to open the following year; and large-scale renovations at the Westview campus, Howe Hall Arts Infused Magnet School and the Berkeley Alternative School will start in the coming months. The Cane Bay middle school would be paired with the elementary and high school already under construction.

Enrollment projections compiled by the district, based on approved developments and subdivisions, show those current projects won't be nearly enough to handle the additional 32,000 students set to flood district schools in the coming decades. Those estimates would more than double Berkeley's current student enrollment.

District officials and school board members agreed at a recent meeting to form a committee to begin interviewing architects and construction management firms for the proposed Cane Bay middle school and two renovation projects, even though no financing options have been discussed publicly.

All school board members will serve on the committee and begin wading through construction management firm and architect applications in January.

The district could try to fund the projects during its annual budget process, said Ken Coffey, Berkeley's assistant superintendent for operational services. State law lets districts borrow up to 8 percent of their assessed property value, although some educators on a statewide task force are pushing to boost that limit to 15 percent.

Districts now must get voter approval through a bond referendum to borrow more than 8 percent. District leaders aren't in favor of a referendum because all corners of the county would have to vote on approving a tax increase to pay for new schools, even though the schools would be built in only two sections of the district.

The district's 8 percent debt limit is estimated at $46.3 million, but not all of that money is available to spend on construction, said Brantley Thomas, the district's executive director for financial services. The district is required to use $12 to $15 million of that total to pay off existing debts from previous bond issues, Thomas said.

Using the remaining 8 percent debt limit funds to pay for more schools also would lead to an immediate millage increase, an unpopular move that would anger taxpayers, Thomas said.

Even if officials choose to use some of the 8 percent debt funds for the middle school or renovations, there's not enough to fund the two proposals that focus on Hanahan and Daniel Island. The district needs a high school on Clements Ferry Road to relieve overcrowding at Hanahan High and to handle the influx of students from Daniel Island, Cainhoy and surrounding areas, Coffey said. The new Cane Bay High School has a total budget of $63 million, so building a similar high school would exceed the debt cap's available money.

The district also is planning to build a new elementary, intermediate or kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school in Hanahan. Coffey said he's met with Hanahan city officials to discuss available property for a potential school site, and he's also talking with Charleston officials about sites on Clements Ferry Road. No deals have been finalized yet, he said.

Hanahan Elementary already has seven portable units, Hanahan Middle is above capacity and Hanahan High has no available classrooms. The school is so full that the next teacher hired would have to float to different rooms for part of the day, Hanahan High Principal Rodney Thompson said.

Thompson said Hanahan High serves a wide attendance area that includes Daniel Island and Cainhoy. Some students travel on hour-long bus rides to get to the campus. "I just cringe every time we send a bus over that bridge," he said.

Thompson said he supports a new high school on Clements Ferry Road, which would free up some space at Hanahan High for newcomers moving into subdivisions in the Hanahan area.

"We aren't as crowded as some area schools, but we are getting ready to feel that sense of urgency," he said. "And even if we start planning today for another new high school, it's probably still at least five years away from opening."

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