What you need to know:
• The school board refused a staff recommendation to move students this summer from the four downtown elementary schools. The delay likely puts off any move until Jan. 2011.
• The board did approve $175 million in financing to address seismic concerns at the schools. It’s just a matter of where students will go when construction begins.
• The board voted to inform parents of the seismic concerns and offer an opt-out option for parents who aren’t willing to take the risk until January.
• Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s plea for a delay and board member Gregg Meyer’s opposition likely turned the tide on the vote.
We’re live at the Charleston County School Board meeting. Parents are out in force to express their opposition to relocating students off the peninsula for three years while the district address seismic concerns at four downtown campuses and Sullivan’s Island Elementary.
Plans put Buist Academy at the old Wando High, Charleston Progressive to the former School of the Arts, James Simmons and Memminger to Brentwood Middle’s old school, and Sullivan’s Island to the Whitesides campus.
In preparation for a bond referendum vote this November, the district commissioned seismic reviews of each campus, considered the most threatened in the district because of age, location, and layout. The results indicated the buildings would pose a life-threatening danger to students in the event of a serious earthquake. An earthquake isn’t likely in the next three years, but it is a possibility considering Charleston’s major shake more than 100 years ago.
6 p.m.: School Superintendent Nancy McGinley says its a moral imperative to move these students.
Parents are arguing the district is moving too fast.
Parent Mark Brandenburg told the board that it’s not incumbent on them to move these students because of the unlikely event of an earthquake.
"It’s a false argument," he says. "This is information you’ve had for years."
6:15: Buist parents want a better solution than Wando. One Johns Island parent says that it’ll be a 45-minute commute one way to get his son to the temporary school in Mt. Pleasant.
Another parent: "All of us accept risk everyday. Come up with a good plan and a wise decision, not a hasty decision."
6:20: A James Simmons mom says it’s going to be a financial and emotional burden on parents. "We are not going to lie down and let you take our schools," she said.
North Charleston representative says Mayor Keith Summey doesn’t want the district to move kids into the old Arts campus because of charter plans at the site.
6:25: Public comments are over. We’re on hold while the board works through other items on the agenda.
7:25: Mayor Riley speaks on earthquake concerns. Pledges to help find solutions, including use of city property (possibly park space at Mitchell Elementary) for temporary units.
He asks school board to delay vote. "Push a little harder and take a little longer to see if there is any value in that," he says. "Make sure everything possible is being considered to not harm that fragile relationship between parents and teachers and schools and the proximity between schools and home."
7:30: District staff say total cost will be $175 million, with $48.5 already available from previous capital program. It can pay for it through existing available credit, but utilizes almost all of the district’s available borrowing.
Finance director Michael Bobby says the district will continue to seek out alternative funding. That could include support from FEMA for hazard grants.
7:40: Talk shifts to broader capital needs. (Should return to earthquake talk briefly) A penny sales tax option, endorsed by district staff, would fund a $300 million building program (focused on district needs, not wants) and prevents property tax increases.
An alternative $500 million capital program, not recommended, would provide a little something for every part of the district, but with a substantial property tax increase.
7:55: Board chairwoman Ruth Jordan questioning new urgency to move students from Sullivan’s Island. District report on threat 18 months old.
"We have other schools in the district with the same types of issues," says Jordan. Wants all the schools on the table to better determine risk.
Building program director Bill Lewis says that, because concerns have been enumerated, they need to be addressed.
8:05: Arthur Ravenel still focused on Rivers campus improvements for Charleston Math and Science Charter School. Lewis says that project is still on schedule to be improved independent of seismic improvements at other downtown schools.
Other board members want to know why other schools can’t be housed at Rivers.
"We don’t have 10-20 acres," Lewis says. "We have three acres."
8:10: Board member Chris Fraser, important swing vote, sounds ready to vote for moving students. Says there’s never a good time and no better solutions.
8:15: Board Member Chris Collins sounds like a no vote on moving.
Ann Oplinger is a solid yes vote for relocating schools.
"Once we know the potential, it makes us responsible for the children," she says.
She wants a way to minimize impact on parents and community support for schools.
8:25: Board member Gregg Meyers says, "The longer I’ve thought about it, we need to take a longer view. … It’s up to us to say that we’ve been living with this risk for a very long time, we just didn’t realize the extent."
"I would prefer that we have a downtown solution for downtown," he says.
He wants to rotate schools through swing space on the peninsula and give parents the option to relocate their child from an endangered school if they’re overly concerned with the risk.
"Lets let families make that decision," he says. "If it does happen, we will have been clear: There is a risk."
8:35: Board chair Ruth Jordan. "We took an oath to do what’s right for all of our children to do no harm." Sounds like a yes vote.
Says she’s committed to rebuilding the schools and returning the students.
8:40: Downtown board member Toya Hampton-Green says she’ll support moving students as soon as possible. That puts the likely vote at 3-2.
Chris Fraser first makes a motion on financing improvements. District would pay for repairs regardless of the success of a sales tax referendum in November. If the sales tax passes, they’ll use that money and avoid a property tax increase. Motion passed 9-0.
8:50: Meyers makes a motion to provide a notice to parents regarding seismic risk with an open-transfer option and proposes a sales tax referendum to pay for repair costs and other building needs. Approved 5-4.
9:05: Chris Frasier is bending to an idea of a delayed time frame to January to consider other options. Sounds like he would still support an immediate move if that was the will of the board.
9:10: McGinley: District is recommitted to building the schools. Concern from mayor and others about impact on elementary schools. "We share the concern about parents who don’t have cars or fearful about bus travel." Also concern about partnerships that exist in the community. "I fear there will be an exodus in parents from those schools."
"It’s our recommendation to move to safer campuses." A delay to January could allow more time for staff to consider alternatives.
9:15: The board votes against immediate move. Delays decision on where schools will relocate while staff weighs other options. Members supporting an immediate included Toya Hampton-Green, Ruth Jordan, and Ann Oplinger.