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Once upon a time in Greenville County, villages of portable classrooms surrounded many schools in high growth areas of the county.

To many critics in the late 1990s, the 500 temporary structures at Greenville schools were a striking symbol of a district that had failed to build new facilities or expand existing ones to keep pace with the burgeoning student population.

A bold solution seemed necessary.

In 2002, the Greenville school board embraced an innovative and initially controversial plan, known as BEST (Building Equity Sooner for Tomorrow), to construct or renovate 70 schools in a mere six years through a $1 billion bond program.

Flash forward to today: Current school board members credit the monumental BEST building project with helping the district not only to catch up with growth but to anticipate future needs.

"It was one of the most remarkably successful programs that I have ever witnessed in terms of the difference it has made for students in this district," said school board chairwoman Crystal Ball O'Connor, who helped create BEST, a nonprofit foundation that funded the schools.

"We were able to catch up to where we needed to be in terms of growth," O'Connor added. "Now, we're able to anticipate and provide for the growth that we see."

Today, only a few portable classrooms dot the campuses of Greenville County schools.

"It's nothing like it was in the mid-to-late 1990s," said Betty Farley, the district's longtime executive director of planning and demographics. "We had some schools then with 20 portables."

On June 27, when school trustees consider new building projects, they'll be looking at two new schools, not 70, and some elementary school expansions. 

Drastic measure are no longer needed. A school district that might have seemed neglectful in the past now prides itself on rigorously planning for the future. 

"One of the proudest things I have ever experienced in my long career here was us having good facilities for all of our students to go to and having very few portable classrooms," Farley said. "That's still the goal and that's why we update that long-range facilities plan every year. I would say we did an excellent job."

New schools

The Greenville County school board is almost certain to approve a new high school and elementary school when trustees meet on June 27.

Trustees, in recent interviews, indicated overwhelming support for the current building plan.

The new Fountain Inn High School is slated to cost $67.2 million while a new elementary school is expected to have a price tag of $44.4 million.

The Fountain Inn High School, which would open in 2021 with a capacity of 1,000 students (expandable to 2,000), is needed to help alleviate overcrowding at the district's two biggest high schools, Mauldin and Hillcrest, school officials said.

The two existing schools should have only 2,000 students each, but Mauldin High has a student population of 2,251 while Hillcrest's student body is 2,123, Farley said.

If approved, Fountain Inn High will be located on Quillen Avenue near downtown Fountain Inn.

Meanwhile, the new elementary school, to be built near Laurens Road, is needed to help alleviate overcrowding at several schools in and around the city of Greenville.

Another proposed big ticket item, at $10.5 million, will be a Career Technology Innovation/Incubation Center, which will allow the district to offer highly specialized career programs and experiment with new ones.

The building plan also calls for additions to five elementary schools — Ellen Woodside, Mountain View, Fork Shoals, Simpsonville and Robert E. Cashion — although those projects would occur sometime after 2022.

A 4.6 mill increase to fund the building plan is likely to win board approval on June 27.

The owner of a home valued at $180,500 — the average home valuation in Greenville County — would see an annual tax increase of $33.21, according to district officials.

Some school expansions approved in past years — to Rudolph Gordon, J.L. Mann High and Sara Collins Elementary — are taking place now.

Tax hike critics

Not everyone is pleased with the district's taxing plans. The proposed 4.6 mill increase for the school building program is being considered only a few weeks after the school board raised taxes by 2.3 mills for general school operations.

Some Greenville News readers sharply criticized trustees for the tax hikes.

"The current board has never seen a tax increase they didn't like,"  said Paul Fallavollita.

Dennis Waldrop, the former Mayor of Simpsonville, said that tax increases hurt business and drive up costs for everyone.

"Our school board spends money like drunken sailors on shore leave and escapes criticism because 'it's for the children,'" Waldrop said. "So, rents will increase for all tenants and costs of goods and services for everyone will increase because school taxes come from businesses and landlords who pass the increases along."

Homeowners will be affected only by the tax hike for school building but businesses will be hit by both tax increases.

For instance, a restaurant with an assessed value of $316,040 would see its taxes rise by $87.23 annually for the district’s capital projects fund and by $43.61 for the district’s general operations fund: for a total annual tax increase of $130.87, according to Greenville News calculations.

A pharmacy with an assessed value of $602,270 would pay $166.23 more each year in taxes for the district’s capital projects fund and $83.11 more annually for the district’s general operations for a total annual tax increase of $249.34.

In earlier interviews, school trustees said the tax increase for school operations was needed to maintain competitive salaries and benefits for teachers and staff.

The district also is having to deal with its usual list of unfunded mandates from state lawmakers, including a $4 million required increase in employer pension contributions for teachers and staff.

The tax increase for building new schools, meanwhile, is needed for the district to avoid returning to the days of villages of portable buildings around schools, trustees have said.

“With all the growth that Greenville has seen, there’s no question that our facilities have reached the point where we need to either expand them or build new facilities,” said trustee Derek Lewis.

O'Connor points out that the district has raised millage only once since 1999, in 2013, for school building projects. (Millage has increased more frequently, however, for operations.) The proposed 4.6 mill increase, which would bring in $9.6 million in new annual revenues for the school district, should finance the district's school building needs for at least 10 years, O'Connor said.

Boom town Greenville

The Greenville school district, the state's largest with 77,000 students, devotes far more time and resources than it did 25 years ago to studying growth and developing plans for school construction and expansion, officials said.

The district didn't even have a Planning and Demographics Department until 1995. Today, that six-person department keeps a close watch on growth trends while also managing the district's school choice programs.

"That helped us to get on a much-better path," Farley said. "We're better prepared to respond quickly if we see a change in growth trends."

Farley and her department maintain a five-year facilities plan and extensively revise it every year.

The goal is never to return to the widespread use of portable buildings.

"They do a very thoughtful analysis of the growth that is occurring," O'Connor said. "We always know what's coming. There's never an unexpected surprise."

Also aiding planning efforts is the fact that growth in the district has slowed, though it certainly has not disappeared.

The district grew by 1,000 students last year, but 12 years ago the district grew by as many as 1,700 to 1,800 students in some years, Farley said.

One factor affecting student growth: The birthrate throughout the nation slackened following the Great Recession, which began roughly 10 years ago, Farley said.

Millennials, those born roughly between the early-1980s and mid-1990s, are delaying marriage and family, and those trends can be seen in Greenville as well, Farley said.

"We're mirroring the nation in that respect," Farley said. "The impact of a nationwide lower birth rate has softened our growth. But it hasn't softened it a lot. Growing by 1,000 kids is still growing a lot."

Predictably, the district saw a smaller increase in its kindergarten population when the babies of the Great Recession reached school age.

Current projections call for the district to grow by 3,200-3,500 students over the next five years, Farley said.

Greenville County's demographic makeup has changed slightly as well. A county that once attracted families with children, who would populate the schools, is now booming thanks to retirees.

"The 55-plus population is now representing a larger percentage of the whole," Farley said.

Where the growth is now

In the mid-1990s, when portable buildings were popping up on Greenville school district campuses like kudzu, the growth in the student population was centered on the Eastside and particularly around the Golden Strip cities of Mauldin, Simpsonville and Fountain Inn.

"Today, the growth is more dispersed around the county," Farley said.

Though all parts of the county are growing, some particular hot spots still exist.

Greenville's roaring economic engine downtown is encouraging families to live in and around the city of Greenville, in close proximity to downtown.

"That's where we've seen the most significant growth," Farley said. "People like the urban setting and they want to be close to those things downtown that people want to participate in. There are a lot of jobs being created downtown."

The Verdae development, off Laurens Road, particularly is booming.

"That's a huge residential development in very close proximity to downtown," Farley said.

There's more high-density development in the city of Greenville as well.

"You see developers tearing down one house and building three," Farley said.

All of that puts pressure on elementary schools such as Augusta Circle, Stone Academy, Summit Drive, Lake Forest, Pelham Road, Buena Vista, Sara Collins and others, she said.

The new elementary school that trustees will consider on June 27 would be built off Laurens Road at the old J.L. Mann High School site. With a capacity of 750 students (expandable to 1,000), the new elementary school is intended to address the growth issues associated with families moving to neighborhoods in proximity to downtown, Farley said.

Paul Hyde covers education and everything else under the South Carolina sun. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

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