Many Horry County schools are old, in poor condition and overcrowded. And the district doesn’t have the money to cover all the repairs.
According to Horry County Schools Chief Financial Officer John Gardner, the district won’t have any money for repairs until 2018-19, except for $19.5 million the district’s finance committee is recommending to pay for Myrtle Beach Middle School’s conversion to an elementary school.
Horry County Schools is developing a capital plan to pay for repairs, maintenance and possibly new schools using funds from capital projects millage and the penny sales tax. However, Gardner said the district won’t have any money budgeted for the plan until fiscal year 2019-20.
Between 2019 and 2022, HCS will have only $15.5 million available until $36 million in sales tax money becomes accessible from 2023 through 2025. The total amount the district is projecting through 2025 is $51.5 million.
But a school district facility condition index, known as the Overall FCI, lists more than a dozen schools as being in “severe” condition with several more listed in “poor” condition. The list does not count schools in the process of being renovated.
District numbers show the cost of all repairs at over $113 million, which is more than $60 million over the $51.5 million budgeted.
The Overall FCI doesn’t tell the whole story, though, because schools are rated based upon the cost of deferred maintenance compared to the building’s replacement value, and the maintenance needs could range from mechanical systems to old carpet.
“All it does is give us the ability to look at it and say ‘Let’s look deeper into that number and see what’s really underneath that,’ ” said Executive Director of Facilities Mark Wolfe. “Is it something that is more aesthetic or is it something that’s more physical or structural in nature?”
Horry County Schools also has a Critical Systems Facility Condition Index that reflects the condition of what Wolfe called “the bones” of a school.
“That is a better reflection of the bones of a building, the things that would keep you from being able to have school,” he said, adding that critical systems include things like mechanical systems and roofing.
Schools listed as severe or poor in the Critical Systems FCI are the Horry Education Center, Conway Education Center, Myrtle Beach High School and Whittemore Park Middle School. The cost of repairs for those schools is more than $25 million, according to the FCI.
School board member Janet Graham, who represents Conway, said she wanted to get some new schools in her district.
“The thing I’d like now is instead of throwing good money after bad and repairing things, to really start looking at building some new schools,” said Graham. “We’re not at or above capacity, but we do have schools that are aged.”
Graham cited aging South Conway Elementary and Whittemore Park Middle as examples of schools that could be replaced.
Whittemore Park is in need of almost $8.5 million in repairs and South Conway Elementary is in need of almost $4.8 million in repairs, according to the district’s FCI.
Graham also said she wanted a complete renovation for Conway High School, which the FCI shows is in need of $12 million in work.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of money that’s been spent in the Conway area,” said Graham. “But instead of going after improving things, I’d like to have new if we can.”
Overcrowding and finding balance
The district is also dealing with growth that exceeded projections.
After initially predicting 755 new students, the 45-day average daily membership numbers released Monday showed an increase of 872 students, and nine schools are handling a student population at or beyond the school’s functional capacity, without factoring in modular classrooms.
Those schools are Aynor Elementary, Aynor Middle, Carolina Forest Elementary, Ocean Bay Elementary, River Oaks Elementary, Conway Elementary, Myrtle Beach Primary, Myrtle Beach Intermediate and Ocean Drive Elementary.
“There needs to be balance between schools that need to be repaired and overcrowded schools,” said school board Chairman Joe DeFeo. “If an overcrowded school is to the point where it can’t have portables, we need to expand or build new schools.”
DeFeo said that aesthetic work such as paint and carpeting, which are included in the overall FCI but not the critical systems FCI, are just as important as air conditioning.
“I’ve always had a philosophy in business that your employees behave in the manner of surroundings,” he said.
And while the finance committee has recommended the pay-as-you-go method in which the district spends money as it becomes available, DeFeo is in favor of issuing bonds.
That would give the district more than $51 million in this fiscal year, but only $10 million through 2024 due to the interest the district would have to pay back on the borrowed funds.
“It sounds good but it’s not feasible,” DeFeo said of the pay-as-you-go funding method. “It’s not functionally possible.”
The district is still paying back interest through 2025 on bonds it issued to pay for the five new schools, which cost $240 million.
DeFeo said that the district would be in better shape had it decided to pay back the funds over a longer period of time. But, he said, “paying faster means our kids aren’t paying for it.”