With no means to build more schools, here’s Horry County’s plan to add classrooms

As parents and students make final back-to-school preparations, Horry County Schools is putting the finishing touches on a dozen new classrooms that weren’t a part of original building plans.

As the county’s population continues to grow, and the school district’s construction budget continues to tighten, modular classrooms are increasingly being installed at schools where the number of students have surpassed the building’s capacity.

There are 17 category 1, or “red zone,” schools in the county for 2019-20, according to spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier, which means they’re projected to be at 95 percent or above their designed capacity threshold. Students are not allowed to transfer to those schools, most of which are elementary schools.

Modular classrooms are movable, often come in groups of at least twos, and detached from the primary school building on each campus. They’re connected to the building by a covered walkway and otherwise look and operate the same as typical classrooms.

Horry County Schools was using 60 of these classrooms at 11 different schools last school year, and that number will increase to 64 with the addition of six more each at Ocean Bay Elementary and St. James High School, while eight at Myrtle Beach Primary are returned.

“We really don’t have a lot of choice sometimes,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of facilities. “Children show up where they’re zoned, and we have to provide space for them.”

The county school board has renovated or newly built a handful of schools the past few years to increase capacity for further anticipated growth, but most of the money they set aside for those projects has already been used, and the board has adopted a “pay-as-you-go” model to avoid raising taxes until at least the penny sales tax sunsets in 2024.

In deciding how to spend the limited building funds they have until then, board members have prioritized modular classrooms, budgeting $11.9 million to purchase them out of a projected $40.3 million available for building projects.

Wolfe said district staff experimented with leasing modulars in 2015, including the ones that have since been returned from Myrtle Beach Primary, in hopes they’d eventually stop needing to use mobile classrooms, but the continued population growth has made it clear that’s not feasible.

Horry County Schools technology employee John Dolley carries a new projector into a modular building as crews work to ready modular classrooms at St. James High School in Murrells Inlet, for the 2019 school year. Josh Bell

The district budgeted for 397 additional students this year and brought in 204 new teachers.

Horry County is projecting an increase of nearly 300,000 residents by 2040, and HCS chairman Ken Richardson noted in a Facebook post that if just a third of those new residents had children, the district would need 125 new schools.

Richardson said planning for the future is difficult because they don’t have the extra money today to buy land for schools they might need 20 years from now.

“We have no alternative (to prioritizing modulars), except to raise taxes, and I am absolutely not going to do that,” he said.

Wolfe explained that the modulars are a step up from the portable classrooms the district was previously purchasing.

The portables are older and generally stand-alone classrooms, Wolfe said, and district staff has been instructed to sell or dispose of those structures as they become unused.

The district sold 38 portables this summer, mostly from St. James elementary and middle schools, according to Wolfe.

The district currently still uses 59 portables, though 18 of those are at the Horry County Education Center, which HCS is in the process of replacing with a new building next to the district offices in Conway.

While the oldest modular in the district has only been in use since 2015, HCS has no records on when it purchased the portables. Joe Burch, the district’s planning coordinator, said he’s been here 22 years, and many were in use before he arrived.

Burch said purchasing modulars has become more cost effective than just moving the portables because the older structures would need to be brought up to new building codes that mostly deal with wind loads related to natural disasters. The modulars are also easier to move because they come in two pieces, Wolfe said.

The difficulties with modulars comes with the timing and finding a convenient space for them.

Inspections for the new Ocean Bay Elementary and St. James High School modulars were scheduled for Thursday, so there’s minimal margin of error before school starts Monday.

Crews work to assemble desks in a modular classroom at St. James High School in Murrells Inlet Monday afternoon. Josh Bell

Wolfe said they’ve had issues in the past with students having to be taught in the media center or other non-classroom spaces because modulars weren’t ready in time, but it’s usually just a day or two.

Ideally, he said, the modulars would be ordered by March for a coming school year because they take time to manufacture, set up and get inspected, but that rarely happens because it’s difficult to project need so far in advance, and they don’t want to spend money if it’s not needed.

It’s also increasingly difficult to find places to put the modulars on school campuses, Burch added. Most campuses have enough open space, but it can be a challenge to find the right space that is close enough to school building for convenience while also taking into consideration the need to then add more parking, water and sewer capabilities and electricity.

2019-20 ‘Red Zone’ schools in Horry County

  • Aynor Elementary (3 portables, 8 modulars)
  • Burgess Elementary (4 modulars)
  • Carolina Forest Elementary (8 modulars)
  • Conway Elementary
  • Lakewood Elementary
  • Ocean Bay Elementary (6 modulars)
  • Ocean Drive Elementary (2 modulars)
  • Pee Dee Elementary (4 modulars)
  • River Oaks Elementary (16 modulars)
  • Socastee Elementary
  • St. James Elementary (10 portables)
  • Waccamaw Elementary (5 portables)
  • Aynor Middle
  • Conway Middle
  • North Myrtle Beach Middle
  • Myrtle Beach High (2 modulars)
  • St. James High (12 modulars)
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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.