Horry County debates upsides, downsides to 'school choice' policy


For the first time ever, 44,000 students walk through the doors of Horry County classrooms five days each week.

That number is up by nearly 900 students from last year. It's more than district officials were expecting, thanks to higher-than-expected kindergarten enrollment.

"We're growing at a 2 percent growth rate, which is phenomenal, but it creates challenges," school board member Neil James said during Monday night's meeting.

That challenge is overcrowded buildings. For the 2017-2018 school year, nine Horry County schools are over capacity. Officials say 18 other schools are at 90 percent capacity or higher.

To combat this, school board members and district staff are weighing restricting the county's "school choice" policy that allows parents to enroll their children in any school within the county.

No proposal has been put in writing, but multiple board members suggested a 90 percent capacity cut off would be appropriate, as well as forbidding transfer requests after June, or at an earlier date.

"[The limits would] really give a good picture outlook in the future to get a gauge and a handle on that growth," school district spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said.

The policy would help schools like Ocean Drive Elementary, which is at 110 percent capacity. The school currently enrolls 103 students that do not live in its attendance area, compared to 47 students who do, but choose to attend another school.

The net number of students fills more than two classrooms.

At other schools, the policy would do more harm than good. River Oaks Elementary School is the most overcrowded school in the county, at 124 percent capacity.

However, 193 sets of parents in the district choose to have their children educated elsewhere, compared to 92 who bring their kids to River Oaks.

Because only five elementary schools in the county have less than 90 percent capacity, and three less than 85 percent capacity, a large number of future parents wouldn't be able to make that same decision if a blanket school choice restriction policy was put in place.

Bourcier acknowledged this reality.

"That's going to affect things good and bad," she said, "We'll actually have some schools that that will help, and reduce the capacity load, but some that will actually increase the capacity load."

Bourcier explained that the easiest solution is to put more portable classrooms on a property, which don't factor into capacity rates. Board members say River Oaks has space to put additional classrooms.

Two elementary schools over or near capacity, Lakewood Elementary and Ocean Drive Elementary, do not.

Building brand new schools is another option, but considered a last resort because of the cost. However, it's something the district will be forced to do as the county continues to grow.

"All the building and construction that's going on, it's definitely impacting the schools, so we need to get a handle on that and see where we go next," Bourcier said.

School Board members are currently working on a five-year plan that's expected to be unveiled in January.

A school choice restriction policy is also expected to be finalized at the start of the new year.

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