Aging schools in various needs of repair. A county with declining population and school district enrollment. Underutilization of school campuses.

A study commissioned by the Orangeburg County School District on the condition of its 26 campus facilities — as well as a demographic study providing an analysis on school locations, attendance areas, facility capacity, enrollment projections and forecasts — paints a stark picture.

The facts do not lie and the facts are what are facing district officials and school board members as both meet challenges and make decisions on how best to utilize and maximize existing district resources for the betterment of students and parents.

Difficult decisions may have to be made but they will not be made without community input, school officials say.

“What we are doing now is being respectful of the community,” Superintendent Dr. Shawn Foster said to a Lake Marion High School audience primarily consisting of school district board members and staff. “I would not have dared brought to you a plan to say this is what we are going to do and I have not even brought the information into this community.”

Foster explained the meetings were strictly about information sharing and public input. The district has not made any decisions on the status of schools or whether there will be any school closures or consolidation.

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“At some point, I have to bring something to consider to help stop the bleed,” Foster said. “What that may be or what the end result is will be what we get from these feedback sessions and this information. It is a process.”

Though the public turnout was lower than desired, Foster said the meetings were important for feedback to be received on the “front end” of any decisions that are made by the school district.

“It is hard to give feedback when people feel like the decision has already been made,” Foster said.

While the data can be foreboding, there is optimism as well.

Subdivision construction is planned both in the Holly Hill and Orangeburg areas and expectations are the Lowcountry will come into Orangeburg County. Hopes are these developments will bring in growth and contribute to an increase in children in the district.

A concrete plan or decision on how the district moves forward could come as early as the board’s next meeting Dec. 14.

District administration plans to share comprehensive feedback with the board at the meeting, along with recommendations for a path forward.

“The reality is if I get to a bind and I don’t have a better idea then I am going to take my time it needs to do that,” Foster said. “But my hope is that hopefully by December, I can come and say, ‘Hey guys, here is what we have heard.'”

Foster said he will look to continue getting feedback from the community even when a plan is decided upon.

“There are stages to this,” he said. “Doing better requires action and courage. It requires people seeing things for tomorrow and not living for yesterday or today.”

Facilities study

The study, conducted by LS3P revealed most schools are in good condition and need just minor repairs, such as replacing single-pane windows and walkway canopies.

Others are in need of more extensive renovations, such as creating interior corridors to replace exterior-facing classrooms and investigating moisture issues.

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District Assistant Superintendent for Operations Bob Grant said the study looked at the three regions of the county — west, central and east — and provided a review of school conditions.

Grant said that in the western region, the study rated only one facility in good condition. That is the Branchville High School/Lockett Elementary School campus.

Edisto High School and Edisto Primary School were graded as needing major repairs.

In the central part of the county, Bethune Bowman K-12 was graded in good condition while over half of the schools are in need of major or extensive repairs, Grant said. Most of the school buildings in the central part of the county were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the eastern part of the county, Lake Marion, which was built around 2005, was graded in good condition.

Of greatest concern is the state of an original, unoccupied portion of Vance-Providence Elementary School, which is no longer in use. The school is the district’s oldest, having been built in 1930.

The building has visible signs of mold and structural instability.

Most of the buildings in the eastern part of the county were deemed to need extensive repairs, Grant said.

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Grant noted due to tight supplies in the market, it will cost about $300 a square foot to do major repairs on a building and about $175 a square foot to do minor repairs.

“In all, every one of our facilities has needs,” Grant said. “We don’t have a single facility that does not have needs.”

The district will also look at facility energy performance, such as HVAC and lighting replacement. 

Currently, the district spends about $3.2 million annually just on electricity for schools.

Discussions will also be had on the possibility of building new school buildings and a prioritization of the projects.

Fixing up the schools is no inexpensive task, especially since the school district does not generally receive federal or state funding for facility improvements, Foster said.

The district also does not use residential property taxes to fund school operations. It does utilize property taxes for debt service, but is limited on how much it can raise without first having a referendum.

Main sources of funding for facility improvements are federal grants and federal COVID relief money, which can be used for renovations but not in building new schools.

The district can also use what is called an Energy Performance Contract, which is a financing technique that uses cost savings from reduced energy consumption, to repay the cost of installing energy-conservation measures.

Foster said in order to bring the entire school district’s facilities up to a minimum standard, it would cost about $428 million in just construction costs, though with inflation, these costs are expected to increase. This does not include engineering and design costs.

Cedric Walker, who attended the meeting at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, asked if the district is ready to go into communities and tell them that some schools may need to be closed.

“That is what we are doing now,” he said. “I am standing before folks saying here are the facts. Here is what is out there.”

School utilization

In addition to highlighting some of the maintenance issues with each of the district’s schools, the study also mapped out school locations, percent utilization of the schools and the annual cost in energy to operate each school.

The study revealed that several schools in the district had a use capacity of less than 30% in 2020. Those schools are Elloree Elementary, North Middle High School, Hunter-Kinard-Tyler High School and Lake Marion High School and Technology Center.

Elloree and North Middle have had under 30% usage every year since 2017, except for 2019-20. Hunter-Kinard-Tyler and Lake Marion have not had greater than 30% usage any year since 2017.

The schools most utilized in the district are Marshall Elementary in Orangeburg, Edisto Elementary, Bethune-Bowman Middle High School and Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School.

The demographic study shows a trend of declining enrollment in Orangeburg County’s schools that matches the general decline in population throughout the county. A decline in population also means a decline in federal monies to the county to the tune of about $700,000 annually for the next 10 years.

Because enrollment numbers from the last two years would have skewed the data, the demographic study went back all the way to the 2017-18 school year and charted utilization for each level, coding schools under 50% utilization, under 40% utilization and under 30% in red.

Since 2017, enrollment has declined in almost all schools in the district. The district has seen its school utilization drop from 51.5% in 2017 to 41.6% in 2020.

The district had 14,195 students enrolled in 2017 and had an enrollment of 11,339 through March of this year, though that number saw a slight uptick as the district comes out of the pandemic.

Foster said the district can serve about 13,614 elementary school students. Currently, it has about 5,500.

“We are losing the vast majority of our students in the elementary school level,” Foster said, noting some of this could be due to the fact that Orangeburg County lacks the amenities young families desire.

At the middle and high school level, about 15,000 students can be served. Currently, the district has about 5,000.

Overall, the district has the capacity to serve about 28,822 students and currently has about 11,300, which is about a 39% total utilization rate.

By 2030,the district will most likely have about 8,000 students, according to the study. Foster believes the number could be closer to 9,000.

Some questioned the impact on enrollment from individuals moving to private schools from public schools during the pandemic, specifically in light of the virtual instructional model provided in public schools.

“I assume that was a trend that proceeded the pandemic,” Foster said, admitting though that some may have left the public school system for private schools and the in-person model they offered.

Population projections

Using data from the 2017-18 school year up to the current term, forecast enrollment continues a downward trajectory.

Impacting the enrollment forecast is the decline in number of children being born in Orangeburg County, with 1,335 live births in 2009, decreasing by nearly 400 babies to just 951 in 2019.

From January 2020 to March 2021, about 161 new single-family home permits were issued, the study revealed.

Permits are spread out throughout the county. This is equivalent to 80 new students.

Additionally,  at the time of the study, there were no new multifamily apartment or condominium complex permits granted. This has since changed.

The study also did not take into consideration mobile or manufactured homes, which have seen a 7% percent increase in permits.

Foster said as a result of the changing dynamics of the county and the potential changes coming in the future, the district would most likely consider doing demographic study ever five years.

Currently, about 39% of the county’s land use is considered residential. Residential land usage is expected to increase into the future with about 56% being allocated as residential.

A senator reflects

Sen. Vernon Stephens, D-Bowman, who attended several of the stakeholder meetings, stressed the importance of making sure the facilities in the district are adequate in order to be able to compete with private schools.

“If we are going to survive, we are going to have to make some hard decisions,” Stephens said. “Granted, nothing comes free. We have to have good facilities. We have to make sure we take care of our schools.”

Stephens said the situation is not “all gloom and doom.”

“The facts are the facts and now is the most opportune time for us to evaluate and see what direction we need to go,” Stephens said. “We see in rural South Carolina the problem is compounded because of revenue. When there is not enough revenue coming into a particular community, what suffers? The school suffers.” $5 for 5 months

Stephens said another issue is that public schools need to tell their story.

“When you see a Holly Hill Academy bus transporting kids from the community to a private school, it makes you wonder why that is happening,” Stephens said. “It is a false premise that we are not educating efficiently or successfully. We are offering just as much and better in a number of instances in our public schools as we do in private schools and even in some charter schools.”

Stephens said he is optimistic.

“The future for Orangeburg County is bright,” Stephens said, pointing out the growth of residential development. “From the state level, we know we have not done right by public education in the state of South Carolina.”

Stephens noted the General Assembly passed a $100 million facility bill, “which ain’t a drop in the bucket when you look at facilities.”

“The education formula for funding education is outdated,” Stephens said. “We have not funded education the way it should be funded. Who is suffering? Our children, our community, our state and our nation.”

Getting your voice heard

The comprehensive reports and studies are publicly available on the district’s website — — under the Operations, Maintenance and Facilities Department page.

Individuals are asked to visit the district’s website to fill out a facilities survey to participate in the process and to get one’s voice heard.

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