Charleston County School Board votes to continue construction on new Sullivan’s Island Elementary School building

The fight to stop construction on the new Sullivan’s Island Elementary School building again took center stage at the Charleston County School Board meeting, and the board reaffirmed its commitment to the project.

The board signed off Monday night on a $19 million contract with Thompson Turner to build the 500-student school, which some say is too big for this small island community. Board member Elizabeth Moffly was the lone vote against the majority as she unsuccessfully attempted to get the board to redirect that money toward a new elementary school to serve the growing student population in the northern end of Mount Pleasant.

“In my family, when you make a bad decision, you realize it and change it,” she said. “We are in a position to correct a bad decision.”

She asked the board to delay Sullivan’s Island Elementary because a higher priority should be providing relief to the overcrowded schools in Mount Pleasant. The fact that the district already has invested $3 million into the $26.5 million Sullivan’s Island project shouldn’t be the reason to continue with it, she said. Workers have been on the site for more than a year demolishing the former building and creating a foundation for the new one.

The growing northern end of Mount Pleasant isn’t slated to see a new elementary school until the one in the Carolina Park community opens in 2018, and Moffly said that’s not soon enough.

Some board members agreed with her, but said the money from Sullivan’s Island Elementary wouldn’t have been enough to cover that new school’s cost. And it would be 2016 before the new Carolina Park school could be built; the new Sullivan’s Island Elementary should open in fall 2014.

“It’s troubling to me that we find ourselves in this situation,” said board member Tom Ducker. “It is troubling because the board should’ve proceeded to build a school in north Mount Pleasant, but we are where we are so that’s what we’re going to deal with tonight.”

Some of the public speakers at Monday night’s meeting, such as Mount Pleasant resident Craig Goldberg, asked why the board was building the new Sullivan’s Island instead of a where “appears to be the area of greatest need,” he said.

Later in the meeting, school board members tried to explain the previous board’s logic in 2006. At that time, the board considered building the Carolina Park elementary school but it wasn’t a top priority, board member John Barter said.

The district had a limited amount of money for new construction, and Sullivan’s Island Elementary was supposed to be a renovation rather than a complete rebuild, he said. The district later found the building had structural problems.

In addition, the 1,700-acre Carolina Park development that will serve hundreds of residents was in “financial distress,” he said. If those same decisions were being made today, the board might have reached a different conclusion, he said.

District staff are trying to find ways to add seats for Mount Pleasant students, such as: establishing a new partnership with East Cooper Montessori Charter so it can use the former Laing Middle School building; creating a new, 500-student magnet school in the former Whitesides Elementary School building; and increasing the capacity for the new Laing Middle and Jennie Moore Elementary School buildings by 300 students each.

Still, the overcrowded schools have made rezoning a necessity, and that is slated to happen in the fall 2015. Officials plan to release later this week maps showing the new proposed attendance boundaries for elementary and middle schools.

“We definitely need more seats,” said board Vice Chairman Craig Ascue, adding the board needed to consider additional space for middle and high school students.

The Sullivan’s Island Elementary agenda item brought out its mayor and a few members of Town Council, who said they reaffirmed last week their support for the new school for the fourth time. It also drew opponents who said the town doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a school of that size.

In other business, the board:

- approved hiring Toshawnka Mahone, interim principal of Northwoods Middle, to be the school’s new principal;

- approved a $20.7 million contract to China Construction America of SC to build a new St. Andrews School of Math and Science in West Ashley by Dec. 2014;

- approved in a 8-1 vote a revised 2013-14 academic calendar;

- agreed unanimously to delay voting until Aug. 12 on the proposed Carolina Voyager Charter School.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.

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