The Town of Mount Pleasant should beam with pride that so many people want to reside within its boundaries. As Charleston County School District’s superintendent, I am extremely proud that every one of its 11 schools (elementary, middle, and high) is rated “Excellent” on the State Report Card. Great schools establish a positive foundation for the students who attend them.
They also help sell real estate.
On many levels, population growth has an overwhelmingly positive impact on a community. Yet, it also brings problems and challenges.
The time between a population explosion and the actual expansion of services can bring tension and frustration. Solutions to school overcrowding are especially problematic because they do not occur immediately. Building one new school requires not only $30-$40 million — it takes years to plan, zone, design, and construct. And, even when it opens, determining enrollment boundaries is a delicate and often thankless job. To families it is very personal. Very few parents want their children separated from childhood friends. The prospect of change is even more emotional when students are leaving an “excellent” school that provides a great education.
Unfortunately, we cannot control future population growth. Yet, we will continue to make excellence our standard in all school programs and facilities. CCSD has made a major fiscal commitment to Mount Pleasant. Between 1997 and 2016, the district will have spent over $375 million on capital projects in the town. These investments are made with citizen input. The Town’s Blue Ribbon Committee gave the district its educational priorities, and facilities were planned accordingly. Representatives from the town help monitor the 2010-16 program as part of the Citizens Oversight Committee.
As part of the 2010-2016 Building Plan, the Center for Advance Studies at Wando will open in August 2014. This high tech center, costing just under $50 million, will help relieve classroom space issues on the Wando campus. The building program will also build two other new schools — Jennie Moore Elementary and Laing Middle. They will share a campus on Hamlin Road. The price tags are $34 million and $39 million, respectively. Over five years ago we acquired an additional 20 acres of land that enable us to locate Laing adjacent to Jennie Moore thereby saving tax dollars on infrastructure such as drainage, parking, auto and bus drop-off loops.
Jennie Moore and Laing were planned as 900-student schools but were designed to accommodate future population growth. If the County Board approves expanding them to 1,200 students each, we will immediately gain 600 District 2 seats. These schools are scheduled to open in August 2015 and can help relieve the serious overcrowding in the Park West schools — Cario Middle School, Pinckney Elementary School, and Laurel Hill Primary School.
Because we know that growth is moving northward in Mount Pleasant, the district has partnered with the town and the Carolina Park developer, who has proffered a 20-acre site for a future elementary school. Funding to build that school will not be available until the next building plan, which we hope will begin in 2017.
The question on everyone’s mind is how will the district provide relief from overcrowding until the next building program. One short-term strategy is to add 600 seats to the Sweet Grass Campus (Laing and Jennie Moore). A second is our proposal to create a new District 2 magnet school on the old Whitesides campus. And the third is to modify enrollment zones.
As parents and teachers at Pinckney and Laurel Hill know, overcrowding is a concern right now. Under the law, it is the responsibility of the District 2 Constituent Board to draw or modify enrollment zones for schools. On Sept. 11, the board will publicly explain the boundary changes that will go into effect in August 2015 to more equitably distribute students among the schools.
Meanwhile, a new District 2 magnet school could open in August 2014 on Rifle Range Road using an existing facility that has been refurbished. Targeting grades K to 5, this school will add 500 to 600 seats for the town, available on a voluntary (parental decision) basis. A community task force will develop a proposal, plan this school and determine enrollment criteria.
Town officials and both the county and District 2 boards recognize it is also time to talk about a second high school for East Cooper. With community input, we hope to design a threefold solution. First, we will creatively consider repurposing existing facilities. Second, we will bring high school seats on as soon as possible. Finally, we will develop an approach that can be embraced by the community and that does not divide the town. All three goals are imperative.
There is not a town in America that does a better job supporting high-quality public education than Mount Pleasant. And, in the spirit of a true partnership, I will continue to work to ensure that CCSD remains focused on future growth and the current well-being of every student we serve today.
Nancy McGinley, Ph.D., is superintendent of the Charleston County School District.