Horry County Schools budget up for approval, but building plan hits more snags

Horry County residents won’t be facing a tax increase from Horry County Schools’ 2014-15 budget, which is up for approval Monday night, but the school board will still be wrestling with building costs and how to prioritize a multi-year building plan before it takes a final vote.

Board Chairman Joe DeFeo said next year’s budget, which totals about $564 million and has no millage increase, should easily pass, and he is in favor of approving the 10-year, pay-as-you-go building plan proposed by board member Jeffrey Garland that will be taken up Monday night. The board has said it will approve a plan first to get the building process moving and figure out the funding later.

“We can always make changes if we need to, but this gives us a place to start,” DeFeo said.

The board approved the $427.6 million plan in nonbinding votes at its last two meetings. The plan is prioritized by cash-flow estimates from the district and begins with projects at North Myrtle Beach Middle School, Midland Elementary School, the Horry County Education Center and in the St. James attendance area, which were identified by the board as top priorities.

There have been concerns that areas already in need of capacity relief, especially at the middle school level, fall too low on the list. The board has discussed borrowing as much as $111 million to speed up the building process, but it’s something Garland said may not be the best thing to do.

“We may do some borrowing at some point, but other projects may have to wait a few years,” Garland said. “That amount would incur $22 million in interest – that’s almost the cost of a whole school – and we’ll cut ourselves short down the road.”

Board members may be faced with making more building compromises than anticipated and sooner than expected. The steering committee that has been working on new school prototypes met Wednesday night and was told by architects that the middle school models that incorporate the district’s future capacity needs – room for 1,200 students – and support its educational programs will be about $10 million over budget. The news floored the group, which includes board members, principals and district officials.

“Where would the money come from?” said board member Janice Morreale.

Morreale has said she would be in favor of dropping the one-to-one digital initiative for grades three through five and putting that savings – at least $10 million – toward the building plan. While district officials said they would rather have digital devices, Morreale said her priority was to have her children in a good school building.

Others suggested more swaps and tweaks to the building plan that could help the district meet all of its needs. Garland said they may need to build three middle schools instead of four, one in Myrtle Beach and two others somewhere between Carolina Forest and Socastee, and Socastee and St. James, even though some people might be unhappy with the arrangement. DeFeo said they should also take a second look at building another addition to Forestbrook Middle School.

Board member Harvey Eisner and DeFeo said they would be in favor of moving the Horry County Education Center down the priority list, which would free up $4.6 million. The school is in an old building with a number of portables but serves a small percentage of students, and the district is still looking at possible program changes that would need to be considered in a new building.

“I like new concepts,” said Eisner, who said he wants the best they can get in the school designs. “I think that’s important.”

Neil James, the board’s vice chairman, said they have to strike a balance between function and what the district can afford, which may mean they don’t get all of the open spaces and educational areas they want to have in the schools.

“We’ll have to revisit all of our priorities,” James said. “We have overcrowded areas we need to address, as well as health and safety issues. We’re going to have to make some tough choices and choose where best to spend our money.”