Right now, they are pouring concrete for the new school on Sullivan’s Island.
A load of steel is due to arrive this week. By this time next year, students will be attending class at the new Sullivan’s Island Elementary.
For most people, it’s a done deal.
But not for Barbara Spell and a group of islanders who still want to vote on the school.
Two years ago, a couple of hundred residents signed a petition asking for a referendum to decide on the school’s size, its location — or whether it should even be on the island. Some of them think a 500-student school is too big for Sullivan’s, especially on the beachfront.
By the time that petition came in, the town had already signed a contract with Charleston County schools.
This contentious spat has been going on for two years now, and Spell still shows up regularly at Town Council meetings to protest. Sometimes others join her, but often she’s there alone. And meanwhile, the district keeps building its new school.
The question is: Why does she keep fighting?
It’s simple, Spell says. She wants her vote.
Last year the Sullivan’s Island Referendum group filed suit to force the town to hold a vote on the school.
Depositions are scheduled for later this month, and Spell hopes the suit will go to trial by the year’s end. Already, the group has claimed a first-round victory. In March Judge Markley Dennis denied a motion from the town to dismiss the suit.
Technically, that is a victory.
But judges rarely consider motions to dismiss — so it’s not really an indicator of how this will play out.
For years, folks have claimed that opposition to the school came from a very small but vocal minority. In town elections this past May, however, longtime Mayor Carl Smith took 48 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate against new Mayor Mike Perkis.
Most people concede that vote was a de facto referendum on the school, since Smith has opposed the size of the new Sullivan’s Island school. It’s a fair point, but that’s not the vote the referendum folk want.
But it’s also fair to ask: Isn’t it a little late for all this now?
Spell says it’s never too late, and that the school district should have waited until this was sorted out to begin construction.
“I think it’s reckless and irresponsible of them to be spending that money while there is a serious lawsuit out there,” Spell says.
The school district is not a party in the lawsuit and has had little to say about this conflict. But since they’ve already spent $3 million or so on the $26.5 million school, it seems safe to assume they aren’t real worried.
A violation of rights?
Mayor Perkis says officials won’t discuss ongoing litigation in the press, but the town does “look forward to the new school opening in August 2014.”
And that is likely what will happen. Even if the referendum folks prevail in court, it’s unlikely a judge would slap an injunction on the district since it’s not part of the suit.
The case is fairly complicated. The referendum group says the town violated citizens’ constitutional right to a referendum, and that too many of these decisions were made behind closed doors.
The town points out there were public hearings on the school and few people showed up until after the contract was signed. And no referendum, town officials have said, can void a legal contract.
Sometime in the coming months, the referendum group will get to argue its case in court. But by the time this thing runs its course — through a verdict and the inevitable appeals — there will be 500 kids going to school in that new building on Sullivan’s Island.
Even if these folks get their vote, what good will it do?
Well, Spell says that’s the school district’s — and the town’s — problem.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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