DUNCAN, S.C. — Less than six miles from where BMW is enlarging its only American automobile plant, construction crews are busy expanding the James F. Byrnes High School.
A new fine arts wing is being added to the high school — the sixth expansion in the past decade and a half since BMW started production of its luxury cars and trucks.
“It’s been a continual challenge to keep pace with the increase in our enrollment and the higher expectations from parents and the community,” school Principal Jeff Rogers said.
BMW and its network of suppliers and spinoff businesses have generated an estimated 23,050 jobs across upstate South Carolina over the past 15 years, according to the University of South Carolina. Nowhere is that growth more evident that in the District 5 school system of Spartanburg County, where BMW’s plant and its biggest direct suppliers are located.
“The first generation of workers drive in, and the second generation move in,” said Marvin Woodson, a former superintendent of the school system who headed it when BMW came to town.
As a result, enrollment in the District 5 system has continued to climb and is up this fall by more than 62 percent since 1994, when BMW opened its plant in nearby Greer, S.C. With a district enrollment of 6,975 students this fall, the system opened two new elementary schools last month.
Across the other half dozen school districts in Spartanburg and Greenville counties, enrollment gains have been much less since BMW’s arrival.
In Hamilton County, Tenn., where the public school system is nearly six times as large as Spartanburg’s District 5, any enrollment gains spurred by Volkswagen’s planned $1 billion auto plant are expected to be much less dramatic, at least in percentage terms. But Mayor Claude Ramsey said Monday he expects the announced expansions by Volkswagen and other industries, including a $280 million addition by Alstom Power Co., “will create more economic growth in our county and more opportunities for our graduates.”
“We need to make sure as we get ready for this growth ... that we have the right programs in our schools,” Mr. Ramsey said Monday.
The county mayor called upon the Hamilton County Board of Education last month to develop a plan by Thanksgiving to assess the district’s programs and recommend any changes that should be made to help students get ready for the jobs of the future.
School officials in South Carolina said auto plants bring an influx of workers, higher worker pay and greater demand for skilled technical workers. BMW also has helped boost business and community expectations for educational quality, Dr. Woodson said.
The size and quality of District 5 schools have improved over the past two decades, he said. But with the increased jobs, growth and incomes, business and parental demands for school quality have gone up, Dr. Woodson said, and so has the tax rate for local schools.
“You would have hoped that getting the BMW plant and all of its suppliers would make tax rates relatively stable, but it did not,” he said. “Did BMW improve the quality of life in our area? Yes, it did. But it is costing the local taxpayer that the plant is here. It comes with some good baggage.”
Frank Cook, a retired school principal who has served on the Spartanburg school board for 13 years, said the growth generated by BMW transformed what he said “was once a sleepy little town.” Enrollment and test scores are up, and far more courses now are offered to students, he said.
“As you increase your income and size, it provides you an opportunity to offer better classes with better teachers in a better learning environment,” he said. “But growth creates a lot of change and challenges also. We’re a much different school district today than we were before BMW.”