Computer teacher Pamela Rijo feels grateful that the Charleston County School District is picking up the tab this year for her parking garage fees.
Rijo works at downtown Buist Academy, and when the district rebuilt the school, it did so on top of the school's former parking lot.
That means teachers must park in nearby garages, and the county school board recently agreed to cover those costs.
"It's really nice that they are accommodating us because it is very expensive," Rijo said. "(If they didn't), for most teachers, I don't think it would be a deal breaker (to teaching at Buist), but it would be an additional burden. That's an electricity bill or a water bill."
Buist Academy and Memminger Elementary reopened in their new downtown buildings this fall, and the district will spend $96,800 this year on parking fees for up to 80 of their employees. That figure doesn't count the $56,089 the district spent last year for visitors and employees of the district's downtown office at 75 Calhoun St.
The school district isn't the only downtown public agency to cover its employees' parking costs, and its latest decision to cover those expenses concerns some and highlights the higher cost of doing business downtown.
When the school district renovated and expanded Buist Academy, officials wanted it to have the same kind of building that other schools with grades K-8 have. That meant adding a gym, computer labs and an art room, among other spaces.
The problem was that the school's property was only about one acre - it's the smallest campus downtown - and part of that was being used as a small parking lot. That lot didn't have enough space for all teachers, so some were parking in the nearby garage at 75 Calhoun St.
"To get the footprint we needed, nearly 87,000 square feet, we needed that land," said Bill Lewis, the district's chief operating officer who oversees its building program. "We didn't have the flexibility to carve out land on that campus for parking."
The district considered the possibility of buying the parking lot next door to the school, but that would have cost $3 million. That wasn't an economically feasible option, so district staff didn't recommend buying it, Lewis said.
Less than a mile away, Memminger Elementary had a couple more acres for its new building, but it also lacks a parking area for staff and visitors. Its staff had been using the parking garage at Wentworth Street, and district officials covered that cost. Some of those spaces were free because of a real estate deal involving Memminger Auditorium that previously had been worked out between the city and school district.
The district is building a surface parking lot now that should be finished this spring. They couldn't build it earlier because contractors needed that land for offices and equipment.
District staff proposed spending nearly $100,000 to cover both schools employees' parking costs, and the county school board agreed to the expense.
Lewis said it wouldn't have been right to treat one or two schools' teachers differently than the rest of the district, he said. The district provides parking lots at the rest of its schools, and the land, engineering, asphalt and lighting for those aren't free, Lewis said.
"I don't want people thinking teacher parking at (every school) is free," he said. "That's a chunk of money, but it's what companies do when their workers come to work."
Paying for parking
The demand for parking in Charleston's thriving downtown continues to rise, and public agencies have varying policies for accommodating its employees.
The Medical University of South Carolina spends about $2.3 million annually to provide shuttle connections and CARTA access to its employees and students, but anyone who wants to park in the garages or lots on campus must foot the bill themselves. Those parking rates are based on salary tiers, with higher-paid employees paying more.
Officials say providing free parking to its more than 12,000 employees as well as 3,000 students and 25,000 visitors and patients daily would be cost-prohibitive, but they constantly are trying to find ways to ease the parking demand.
They have enough parking spaces for employees and students, but those aren't always on campus and may require taking a bus.
MUSC has waiting lists for those who want to pay for passes in certain garages or lots, and more than 550 people are on its waiting list for its most desirable garage, Rutledge Tower.
"The point is, everyone has a place to park or a way to get to campus," said Lisa Montgomery, MUSC's vice president of finance and operations.
"I don't know of anyone who says 'I'm going to have to quit because I can't park or can't afford parking,'" said John Runyon, MUSC's director of business services.
Like MUSC, the College of Charleston can't afford to pay for parking for its 1,450 faculty and staff members. Employees can pay for access to certain garages on campus, and the college spends about $160,000 annually so anyone with a College of Charleston identification badge can ride for free on a CARTA bus or trolley.
The college doesn't have a waiting list for any of its lots.
Employees at two other downtown public entities, the city and the county, receive complimentary parking.
The city pays for its 223 employees to park in downtown, city-owned garages, and that works out to more than $250,000 annually. The city also covers the costs of CARTA passes for about 50 employees, and that comes to about $30,000 annually.
Barbara Vaughn, director of public information for the city, said on Friday she didn't have the information from the appropriate officials to explain why the city covered its employees' parking costs.
The county owns two downtown garages, and it allows any of its 683 employees to park in those for free. Those employees work for a number of offices, such as the court, assessor and sheriff's office. The county spends $2.4 million to operate those garages, and that cost includes maintenance and staffing.
"It's a means to ensure our employees have a nearby place to park in order to serve the public," said Shawn Smetana, media relations coordinator for the county.
Going forward, the school district said it shouldn't have to spend as much as it will this year on teacher parking, but officials couldn't calculate the exact future cost.
Memminger Elementary will have free, on-site parking for its full-time employees, and some of its free city-provided spots in the Wentworth Street parking garage will be transferred to the garages near Buist Academy for its employees.
Buist employees and visitors will have to use those parking garages indefinitely, as will visitors and part-time teachers at Memminger. The new lot at Memminger also likely will be available for a fee to the public after school hours.
"When we get Memminger (parking lot) online, it will reduce the overall cost," said Mike Bobby, the district's chief of finance and operations.
Lewis said all the downtown school campuses came into existence more than 100 years ago, and that was a time when there were no cars and everyone walked to school. The district redeveloped those legacy properties to the same standard as other schools while finding solutions to the lack of parking, he said.
"I think it was well thought-out," Lewis said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.
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