Plan to relocate East Cooper Montessori Charter to former Laing Middle School building on hold, likely permanent
MOUNT PLEASANT — Plans were in the works to revive the former Laing Middle School building as a new school, but officials are scrapping the idea after hitting a financial roadblock.
If you go
What: Mount Pleasant Town Council special meeting to hear from Charleston County school leaders on the state of the town’s schools.
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Town municipal complex, 100 Ann Edwards Lane
The proposal was to put East Cooper Montessori Charter School into the vacant U.S. Highway 17 building, and the charter school and the district said they both would have benefitted.
The district would have gotten badly needed seats to accommodate the growing student population, as well as an incubator to help it expand high-quality Montessori options. The charter school that has outgrown its building in the I’On neighborhood would have gotten a bigger campus with a gym and cafeteria, and it could have enrolled more children.
But that’s probably not going to happen now, if ever.
“This is crushing because everybody wanted to make this happen,” said Bill Lewis, the district’s chief operating officer who oversees its capital programs. “We thought this was such a win-win.”
The problem came down to money, or a lack thereof. The district has to cobble together funds to expand the capacity of the new Jennie Moore Elementary and Laing Middle schools that are under construction, and “we don’t have the financial wherewithal to also renovate Laing Middle,” Lewis said.
The former Laing campus was one of the short-term solutions officials had brainstormed to alleviate the community’s over-crowded schools. Other plans include starting a magnet school in August 2014, and redrawing attendance lines for the fall of 2015.
The district hadn’t been putting money into renovating the Laing campus before now because it planned to sell it, but that appears to be changing. In July, the board approved spending up to $950,000 to replace and repair the building’s roof, and it unanimously authorized on Monday spending up to $800,000 to take down the school’s ceiling and clear any mold or asbestos.
The district is funding the work with federal stimulus dollars, and officials said they didn’t have any other project where the money could be used by the Oct. 14 deadline. Board member Elizabeth Moffly questioned why the district wanted to spend that money now if the charter school weren’t going to be using the site, and Lewis said the work would have to be done regardless of who uses the building.
District officials haven’t said what they intend to do with the building in the future, but it would take at least an additional $10 million to ready it for the Montessori school, and even more for a traditional school. Lewis said the district would have to upgrade the building’s power and technology, as well as fix air conditioners and bathrooms and tear down walls to make bigger classrooms.
“We’ve run out of money to be able to do that,” Lewis said. “At the time we (started) having these discussions, we thought we had this (financial) flexibility. With these other circumstances, we just don’t.”
Jody Swanigan, the charter school’s principal, used the same word as Lewis to describe her feelings: crushed. She said she’s hopeful that the school will be able to help Mount Pleasant meet its demand for more Montessori options and its need for more seats.
The charter school still needs more space, she said. It had to reduce the size of its incoming first-grade class this year, and it will have to do so again next year. The school’s middle school students aren’t leaving, so the campus doesn’t have room to serve those students as well as big classes in lower grades.
She’s unsure of what the school will do, but she said there are ways for the district and charter school to work together.
“We’ve really just gotten this information,” she said. “We need to re-evaluate all of the options that are available.”
Lewis hinted that the school could be considered for inclusion in the district’s next construction program. Voters approved in November 2010 a 1 percent sales tax increase to cover specific buildings through 2016. The district will have facility needs after that, and East Cooper Montessori Charter could be part of that next round of construction.
The decision ultimately would be up to voters and the county school board, and Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said she liked the idea of voters deciding whether to fund that kind of project.
She said she supports charter schools and endorsed the proposal to expand Montessori at the Laing campus, but the district has other financial commitments to meet. It can’t do everything, she said.
“While you can have great ideas, you have to prioritize them,” Coats said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.