CLOVER — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of articles looking at the upcoming Clover School District bond referendum and focusing on one of five proposed construction projects.
A $10 million renovation of Clover Middle School to serve as a ninth-grade academy for Clover High School is a key growth management strategy voters will consider in the March 22 bond vote.
Superintendent Marc Sosne has said the academy, one of five proposed projects in the $67 million bond referendum, would allow the district to postpone the need for a second high school until after 2025. He also said the plan is more economical and would allow the community to be unified under one high school.
The construction package totals $99 million, but the district plans a $32 million down payment to reduce the amount it would need to borrow as well as avoid a property tax increase.
If the bond is approved, Clover Middle students would move to a new middle school on Barrett Road in August 2016. The current middle school building, next to the high school on N.C. 5, would be renovated for a ninth-grade academy. It would open in August 2017.
Rose Cummings, chairwoman of a bond steering committee, said in addition to managing enrollment growth, the ninth-grade academy plan meshes with the district’s aim to give students the best education possible.
“Helping kids transition into high school as smoothly as possible is very, very important, because in high school you have more responsibility, more accountability,” she said. “Educators have realized that that population of students needs specialized care.”
Cummings said a ninth-grade school is not new for Clover, adding that a makeshift ninth-grade academy has existed in Clover for some time, and that the program has been evolving.
“It’s just maturing to the point where we believe a stand-alone ninth-grade academy is the right thing for Clover at this time,” she said. “Most schools in South Carolina have some type of ninth-grade academy.”
Some parents and other residents of the school district have expressed concern about the plan, however, saying it allows Clover High School to expand to a capacity of 3,400 students.
“The number scares me, the size,” said Matt Cullen, the parent of three students in Clover schools who voiced his concern last month to the Clover school board. “Nobody has a problem with anything in the bond, except for the fact that it’s going to increase the size of the high school.”
However, Cullen also said the plan might be successful.
“It’s a little bit risky,” Cullen said. “I have some concerns about it, but I’m not sure that it would be a complete failure.”
District spokesman Mychal Frost said the 3,400 figure is the combined capacity of both buildings, not projected enrollment. He said the high school capacity would be 2,400 students and the ninth-grade capacity about 1,000.
“The assertion has never been made from the district that there will be 3,400 students ever present in the school,” Frost said.
He also said claims that Clover High School would become the largest high school in the state under the plan are wrong.
Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, with more than 3,600 students, is the largest in the state now, he said.
“If every single seat were filled, we would still not be the largest high school in South Carolina,” Frost said.
Frost said the district’s current ninth-grade enrollment is 561, well below the 1,000-student capacity of the current middle school building. Present enrollment at Clover High School, he said, is 1,998 students in grades nine to 12.
Frost added that the district will add teachers, counselors and other staff members to support the student population.
“As student enrollment grows, so does everything else,” he said.
He said the district already added one guidance counselor at the high school this year, bringing the total number of counselors to seven.
David Brantley of Lake Wylie is a semiretired insurance broker who has two grandchildren that graduated from Clover schools.
He said that he would like to see a second high school in Lake Wylie rather than a larger Clover school.
“They can make arguments all day long that there will be more opportunities because of the size,” he said. “But I think it will be just the opposite.”
He said groups like chorus, athletic teams and many competitive academic groups only accept a certain number of students; one high school means fewer spots on those groups or teams.
“If you’re limiting the number of students, there are a lot of students who never get an opportunity to develop that talent because when they try out, they weren’t an obvious star,” he said.
He added: “With one school, there are going to be a lot of really bright kids who are shy and unnoticed, who could have had an opportunity to develop their talents and aren’t going to get a chance.”
Cummings, however, said many parents have a different perspective on that issue.
She said a large amount of parents favor the bigger school because it places Clover High in AAAA standing, while two separate high schools would likely both be in the lower AA standing.
“A lot of people want to make sure their children are coming out of a competitive environment because their child wants to play at a collegiate level,” Cummings said.
As the school has grown, she said, it has been able to add opportunities.
“We have added sports that weren’t available five or six years ago,” she said. “Sometimes for parents it matters that there are lots of options.”
But Brantley argues larger schools have more problems with bullying and discipline.
“Every study I’ve ever seen indicates the smaller the school is, the more opportunity for the children,” he said.
Fred Glickman of Lake Wylie doesn’t have children in the school, but he has mentored at the high school through the River Hill Lions Club.
Glickman said many of the bond projects are “very worthwhile.”
He opposes, however, expanding the high school.
“In terms of the quality of education, there’s a high correlation between the size of the school and the quality of education that’s delivered,” he said. “Bigger schools simply do not fare as well.”
Committee chairwoman Cummings disagrees that the school would be too large, noting students would be at separate sites.
“It’s still a manageable number,” she said. “You have to use those facilities as flexible as you can.”
She said the district is committed to providing appropriate class sizes and numerous opportunities. Cummings also said the district has a strong track record of academic success, and she expects that to continue.
“Everybody is faced with managing the number of students at the same time as maintaining the quality of education that our community demands,” she said.
Cummings and Frost both said a second high school is in the district’s future, but they say now is not the right time.
Frost said the district’s objective “is a world-class education at the most affordable rate to the taxpayers.” A second high school now, he said, “is not fiscally responsible and does not improve the academic offerings we can have at Clover High School.”
Frost said a second high school would cost at least $108 million “on the low end,” more than the entire cost of the five planned construction projects. That figure is based on the cost of York Comprehensive High School, which opened in 2010, he said.
He said homeowners shouldn’t expect higher property taxes if the $67 million bond is approved. Bonds sold in 2006 to build Larne Elementary and Oakridge Middle are being paid off, so the district’s debt is going down, Frost said.
For example, Frost said homeowners in 2007 paid $136 per $100,000 of property value; he said that would go down to $96 per $100,000 in 2014.
However, he added that homeowners likely would pay more property taxes for the construction of a second high school.
He said the $10 million in planned renovations for the ninth-grade school at Clover Middle would include upfitting science labs, improving the school entrance and “a general face-lift of the interior of the building.”
Frost also said the details of the renovation are still being determined, but it might include improved lighting and flooring “to make it more on par with what is next door at the high school.”
He added that some parents are concerned the ninth-grade students would not have access to the Applied Technology Center programs next to the high school because of the distance between the two campuses.
However, Frost said part of the building update will “bring in pieces of those programs to the ninth-grade campus so that becomes a feeder program” for the technology center.
Frost said a high school would require sufficient land, infrastructure and traffic access from major roadways.
The district owns 172 acres on Daimler Road, off S.C. 274, which “is available when the time is right for a future school.” He said that could include a high school, middle, elementary or some combination thereof.
“The timing is not now,” Frost said about a second high school. “We’re not saying it’s not ever going to happen; we’re saying not now.”
Cummings said the community places a high value on its public education, which she believes has grown in part because of the reputation of its schools.
“We put value on the educational experiences of our kids by living where we live. I’m really proud that we’ve done a good job with our planning and our use of resources,” Cummings said. “And this bond is just taking it to the next step.”
Jennifer Becknell • 803-329-4077