There’s no question Lexington’s excellent schools are driving economic development, says Gregory Little, superintendent of Lexington School District 1. And the schools are attracting so many new families with children that the district is growing by an average of 533 students per year.
“We’ve had steady growth and we expect that to intensify,” Little said. Educating 26,000 students today, the district predicts the total will be around 40,000 by 2040.
“We have to be prepared. We can’t wait till 2040 to prepare ourselves for the growth,” Little said.
Lexington 1’s administrators recently presented a five-year growth plan that began by noting that the district, which serves the Gilbert and Pelion areas as well as Lexington, has been adding an average of 533 students each year since 2000.
The first step would be rezoning students to give relief to Meadow Glen Elementary and Middle schools in a high-growth area around U.S. 378 and I-20 near Lake Murray. “The rezoning buys us time to allow construction to keep up with the growth,” Little said.
The plan progresses through building a new middle school in the area, completing a districtwide facility study and considering a bond referendum to pay for facility improvements and construction identified in the study.
In all the growth and planning, Little stresses that the district must remember that “the most important person we serve is each individual child.”
Little, who has been on the job as superintendent for a year, said that the sense of family and connectedness is one of the district’s strengths, something he never wants to lose sight of.
Business leaders looking for a new location want to know that good schools are available, he said, as well as having confidence that a well-educated workforce is on hand. Lexington 1 has been successful on both those counts.
As more people move into the community, small retail and service businesses follow to meet their needs. As the newcomers arrive, they build demand for homes and apartments, which drives the construction industry.
“We recognize our history of success and excellence. We are seeking ways in order to improve each and every day,” Little said. “We recognize the important role we play in our community.”
The school district is preparing for growth in a number of ways. Blessed with excellent leadership, the district is developing a talent pipeline so that the tradition will continue as some administrators retire.
Little said that the district is also revamping the way it recruits, retains and develops teachers, with the realization that a teacher shortage is looming. “The No. 1 factor of student success is the quality of the teacher in the classroom,” he said.
The district is also working to improve its customer service, both to families of students and to the business community, going above and beyond the basics.
As with many fast-growing districts, Lexington 1’s funding is a quandary. “We receive no operating help from all these new homes. We do get some from business growth,” Little said.
Act 388, enacted by the S.C. General Assembly in 2006, transferred the tax burden for school operating funds from home property taxes to commercial and other properties, with a penny increase in the sales tax designed to help. The sales tax revenue has been volatile, and the burden has fallen heavily on businesses.
To address the needs for workforce development, Lexington 1 is endeavoring to equip its graduates with the skills they need to thrive, Little said. Because more jobs require technical skills, the district is focusing on these and partnering with technical colleges that offer training that may be completed in less than four years.
The Lexington Technical Center, near the Lexington High School campus, educates students from across the district in 21 areas of career-focused specialized training.
Little, a North Carolina native whose parents grew up in poor economic circumstances, believes in the transformational power of education. “Education was the engine for economic prosperity in my family,” he said. “It changes people’s trajectories, breaks the cycle of poverty and creates opportunity.”
He considers the challenges of growth a “tremendous compliment” to Lexington. “It’s an exciting time to be in Lexington . . . so many communities are trying to figure out how to remain relevant in today’s economy. I look at it as a great responsibility to help lead us through this time.”