Location picked for new alternative school, but it’s still unclear how they’ll pay for it

Plans are moving forward to build a new Horry County Education Center, but the school board still hasn’t decided how to fund the project.

The alternative school, which temporarily houses students with disciplinary infractions, has been operating since 2002 out of the former Kingston Elementary building off S.C. 905 in Conway, according to district spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier.

Attendance at the center typically varies from about 150 students at the start of the school year up to 250 students in the spring with the average length of stay being six to eight weeks per student, Bourcier said.

School board members have discussed the need to replace the center for numerous years and have now prioritized the construction project as likely the only new school to be constructed before 2024, when the penny sales tax is set to expire.

The board has approved the new location — in a lot adjacent west of the district’s offices on Four Mile Road in Conway — and set the budget for the project at $13 million, but hasn’t specified how they’ll be getting that money.

John Gardner, the district’s chief financial officer, brought up the idea of borrowing at a recent facilities committee meeting, but the idea was quickly shot down because the board previously approved a pay-as-you-go model, with no borrowing or tax increase, for building projects.

The model leaves about $40 million available for funding building projects through 2024, but only about $3.2 million available for the 2020-21 school year, according to Gardner’s projections.

Gardner also suggested that the board could use a portion of its unassigned fund balance, which is projected to end this school year at about $25 million. That’s the amount of fund balance above the minimum, which is 15 percent — or about two months’ worth — of total operating expenses, Gardner said.

Gardner said the board has used unassigned fund balance recently to pay for land and modular classrooms, but hasn’t had to spend beyond the unassigned balance since the recession in 2007-08.

Some facilities committee members suggested the district borrow from itself, meaning spend unassigned fund balance now, and then use penny sales tax revenue when it comes in to replenish the fund, but Gardner said he’d need to research whether that’s a legal option.

Gardner didn’t include any funding for the new education center when he introduced the initial $683.5 million superintendent’s comprehensive budget proposal to board members Monday.

Determining where the $13 million for the alternative school comes from will impact how quickly construction can be completed, though the current plan is to have the building ready to occupy by summer 2021.

Board chairman Ken Richardson has emphasized expedience in building the new center, and that desire even led to a change in board governance that now requires two board members and three staff members to serve on a selection committee for construction projects with a budget between $4 million and $50 million.

The previous rule was that any new construction project required a selection committee with five board and five staff members, which will still be the case for projects with budgets exceeding $50 million. The policy recommendation, which Richardson explained could help speed up smaller construction projects because fewer members can more easily agree on meeting schedules, passed unanimously.

Facilities committee chairman Neil James suggested appointing board members Shanda Allen and Sherrie Todd to the selection committee for the new education center. All final selection decisions will still need to be approved by the full board.

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Investigative project reporter David Weissman joined The Sun News after three years working at The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania, where he earned awards for his investigative reports on topics including health, business, politics and education.