Berkeley schools take case to voters

Much of Goose Creek High School is housed in a converted elementary school. The school, which is overcrowded, will get major renovations if the $198 milliion bond referendum passes in Berkeley County in November, but many officials say something needs to be done with the school whether the bond passes nor not.

Class changes at Goose Creek High School can be dangerous.

Doors swing out into the narrow, crowded hallways, making passage difficult as throngs of students try to make their way from one class to the next.

Last year, a girl suffered a concussion when she got whacked by a door.

“They know to walk on the right, like traffic,” said Assistant Principal Cynthia McBride, also a graduate of Goose Creek. “But even so, there are times when you just have to stand still and wait until everybody can move again.”

The view from Redbank Road is deceptive because the entry and auditorium — along with the gym, media center and science wing — were part of a facilities-improvement referendum approved by Berkeley County voters in 1999.

Inside, the school is a hodge-podge of buildings, including four trailers, built over a 40-year period starting in 1962. Some of them were originally Goose Creek Elementary School, built for younger children, with small classrooms, scaled-down restrooms and narrow halls.

In addition to the outdated facilities, the school also has more students than it can handle comfortably.

The Berkeley Center for the Arts, which is housed at the school, is a countywide magnet program that has added about 160 students, bringing the total at Goose Creek to nearly 1,800.

Students sometimes spend 20 minutes of their 30-minute lunch time waiting to buy food. It takes three lunch periods to cycle the students through two small cafeterias and an a la carte canteen.

Because there is no place for the entire student body to assemble, students must pay to attend pep rallies for the defending state champion Gators football team. That keeps some from going.

“We’ve done well with what we’ve got,” McBride said. “But it hasn’t been easy.”

The school has a lot on riding on the district’s $198 million bond referendum on Nov. 6. If it passes, Goose Creek High will get about $26 million in renovations, including a new cafeteria and new classroom wings that would increase capacity to 2,175.

School Board member Phillip Obie has said he believes Goose Creek High School has the most to lose if the referendum fails, and other board members said a back-up plan is need, just in case.

The last time the Berkeley County School District asked voters to approve a building project, this year’s high school freshmen were just toddlers.

Since then the district has cobbled together enough money to build the Cane Bay schools and do improvements to others as necessary.

But many of the projects from the 1999 question are now outdated. On Nov. 6, the board will ask voters for $198 million.

District officials say this year’s proposal is different from the last.

“The last referendum was about facilities,” said Amy Kovach, district director of communications and community relations. “This one is about population growth and overcrowding of facilities.”

The district grew by 800 students each the last two years and nearly 1,000 this year, bringing the total to more than 30,000, not including the Head Start or 4K students.

Several large housing projects that were on hold during the recession are now starting to take off again. Kovach said 43 children enter the school system for every 100 new residences in the county. Predictions call for 20,000 more students in the district in the next two decades.

Fifteen of the county’s 41 schools are currently at capacity, and many others are close. District officials have a list of building needs that is several pages long.

The referendum would fund a new high school and a new middle school in the Daniel Island/Cainhoy area, and elementary schools near Sheep Island Road, Tanner Plantation and Foxbank Plantation. It also would include renovations for 29 other schools, including major projects at Marrington Middle School and Cross, Goose Creek, Stratford and Timberland high schools.

The money would come from general obligation bonds issued in two phases. It would mean a $40 tax increase on a $100,000 home starting in 2014, and an additional $40 starting in 2017, based on the county’s current tax base. It would go back down to $40 in 2023 and phase out by 2036.

So far, there has been no public opposition, even though a June phone poll of 400 voters by the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors showed that only about 32 percent approve of the project.

The Yes 4 Schools committee is not releasing results from an August survey, but the survey showed that “voters consider smaller classrooms, safer school environments, better teachers, more high tech learning and better facilities all to be very important,” according to committee member Laura Varn.

Near nightly meetings throughout the county have brought out people who have questions, but they seem to understand the district’s needs by the time they leave, Kovach said.

Thompson said community support is strong, with backing from local corporations such as Santee Cooper and MeadWestvaco; the Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester chambers of commerce; and the mayors of Goose Creek, Hanahan and Charleston.

“I realize that once the campaign kicks off (on Oct. 2), there may be some opposition, but I’m not hearing any now,” said Jane Pulling, a retired educator and co-chair of the referendum committee with John Matthews and Chad Vail.

Thompson said something has to be done to accommodate the growth, and homeowners will be hit in their pockets one way or another.

If the referendum fails, the influx of students will be accommodated in trailers.

“If I have to move trailers in, it’s an operational expense and operating expenses are on your tax bill,” he said. “With trailers, there will be more overcrowding and a less safe environment, and the burden will still fall on the taxpayers.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713.