Ann Oplinger is usually quick with a compliment, rarely offering scorn. The Charleston County School Board member let it all out May 4 after the board put off a decision on moving students out of school buildings deemed dangerous in the unlikely chance of an earthquake. Parents told the board it was moving too quickly on a decision that would mean a three-year sabbatical from the peninsula. But Oplinger worried a delay would keep children in the unsafe buildings for another semester.
“I cannot understand why anyone would choose convenience over their child’s safety,” she said.
Now that we finally have a decision on moving students, one thing is certain: Nothing about this process has been convenient. Ironically, the board went back on Monday and approved the first of a host of options floated by school board members and staff over the last three weeks.
Last month, consultants told the district there were safety risks in the event of an earthquake.
Repair and reconstruction of the old campuses is expected to take three years and cost $175 million. The district will pay for most of that either through a property tax increase or a sales tax hike that will be decided by voters in November.
In the meantime, Buist Academy students will move to the old Wando South campus, Charleston Progressive Academy will go to the Berry Campus in Park Ciricle, and James Simmons and Memminger elementary schools will share the Brentwood campus off Dorchester Road. The total cost for the temporary relocations is expected to be $1.5 million.
Considering the current recession, it’s surprising to note that the money was hardly discussed in this debate. It was more about the safety of the students and intense feedback from parents and the community.
The rub for most parents was that it was too much too soon. A temporary move for all of the students was inevitable — each campus was in line for upgraded facilities in the next capital program. But parents felt rushed out of their old homes on the peninsula before they got a word in.
Since the findings were released last month, district staff laid out their argument for a quick move but largely dismissed parental concerns about the urgency.
But the school board was ready to listen. On April 29, a packed audience told the board to take more time, including Mayor Joe Riley, who offered any city property that might help keep the community schools, James Simmons and Memminger, on the peninsula.
The board refused the staff’s recommendation and told them to go back to the drawing board. Under a short-term solution approved by the board, parents were going to get to move their children to another school this fall. The delay likely would have meant students wouldn’t move until Jan. 2011.
The potential delay had Oplinger seething. In a special meeting last week, she went so far as to challenge board member Chris Collins on whether he would put his own daughter in one of those schools next fall. He said it should be the parent’s decision.
As tension mounted, board member Elizabeth Kandrac was drowned out by the banging gavel as she questioned Toya Hampton-Green’s right to vote, since she has a child at Buist.
Board member Gregg Meyers played ref.
“The board needs to recognize there are different ways to look at this issue,” he said. “Let’s not attack each other’s good will.”
Danger, Will Robinson
It was quickly evident that the temporary fix had flaws. Superintendent Nancy McGinley told the board that requests started coming in immediately to transfer children to schools that were already overcrowded or had waiting lists. There were also concerns from teachers and staff members who wanted out of the unsafe buildings. Insurance rates could have gone up if the district left students at risk.
District staff had also written a draft letter that would notify parents of the potential earthquake risk. If they weren’t ready to drag their kids out before, parents would have been after reading the proposed letter. You don’t want to understate the risk, but the letter went so far as to draw a direct comparison to earthquake-ravaged, Third World Haiti. The letter did not note that these were the only schools that had been seriously studied for seismic concerns and other campuses could still pose a threat.
But the board was still deadlocked on the first proposal. Fortunately, there was a fresh Plan B.
The alternative would have put Memminger and James Simmons in trailers at Mitchell and Marlow parks, opening the Brentwood site as a more acceptable alternative for Buist parents who balked at driving deep into Mt. Pleasant to get to the old Wando campus.
But, as with any difficult decision, even the best alternative isn’t ideal. Memminger and James Simmons wouldn’t have been able to move until Jan. 2011, leaving the students in unsafe buildings for another semester. This was also the first time that neighborhoods were hearing about the potential that their community park was going to be a trailer park for the next three years.
On May 4, a tired board was just ready for a decision. But on May 10 — faced with fresh opposition from the downtown communities against the temporary sites — the board shifted back to the original proposal with an 8-1 vote (Collins was still opposed), convinced that they’d exhausted all alternatives and wouldn’t make everyone happy.
“We’re not doing this again,” Chairwoman Ruth Jordan told The Post and Courier. “Let’s move on. Let’s talk about education.”