An offer neither Hanahan nor Berkeley schools can refuse

Hanahan Mayor Minnie Newman-Blackwell helped broker a truce between the Hanahan City Council and the Berkeley County School board over building a new elementary school.

So last week Hanahan City Council postponed its regularly scheduled meeting so council members could go with the mayor to face the Berkeley County School Board.

It was sort of like that scene in "The Godfather" when the five families sit down to put an end to the war between the Corleones and Tattaglias.

The two sides have been fighting for the better part of a year over the location of a new elementary school in the Tanner Plantation/Foster Creek area. At the end of the night, the two sides stood together, made the peace, and promised a new era of collaboration.

Now Hanahan is hopeful and the school board is ready to begin again. The city, both sides say, will get its school.

But just like in the movie, that public show of diplomacy masks a lot of simmering bad blood.

"We are willing to offer up the olive branch again," Hanahan Mayor Minnie Newman-Blackwell says. "But I'm going to be careful. My trust has been broken."

So, basically, if the two sides don't quickly come to terms on this new and much-needed elementary school, it will be "back to the mattresses," as the Corleones might say.

In 2012, Berkeley County voters approved a $198 million bond referendum to build new schools.

The mayor campaigned for the referendum, asked her folks to vote for a tax increase on the promise of a new elementary school in a rapidly growing area of Hanahan.

But last fall the school board asked for a zoning change on a piece of land called the Bowen tract off Foster Creek Road, and both the city and the planning commission unanimously said "No."

The school board was furious, appealed the decision in court. School folks said the city was trying to push them to city-owned land because Hanahan officials wanted the Bowen tract developed residential to make more in property taxes.

The city said the school district's application was laughably vague, and did not even include a traffic plan, a basic part of any development proposal. They said adding hundreds of cars a day to that spot would have been a nightmare.

"It was the most difficult thing I ever had to do," says Pat Eckstine, a member of the planning commission and leader of a community group of advocates for the new school. "We understood it would delay the school, but we knew it had to be done right."

The district eventually withdrew its appeal (which Hanahan folks call a "lawsuit").

A few months back, the Berkeley County School Board banned volunteers from coaching at their schools. The board said people had complained about parents coaching their own kids, showing favoritism.

Folks in Hanahan said it was an attack on Hanahan officials, no less than five of whom have been volunteer coaches in Berkeley schools.

Newman-Blackwell mentioned this fact in her speech to the school board, as part of all the city does to support its schools. It's a long list. Hanahan loves its schools.

The reason she and her entire council attended the school board meeting Tuesday was because Newman-Blackwell had gotten an email from board member Doug Cooper, in which he basically accused the city of blackmailing the district to build on Hanahan-owned property.

It ended with Cooper threatening to make a motion to move the new elementary school to Goose Creek.

School officials have stood behind Cooper. They say he was acting as a private citizen, even though he threatened board action. Berkeley County School Board Chairman Kent Murray says it's too bad that Cooper has been criticized.

"Say what you will, he got the communication going again," Murray says. "Everyone wants to see the school built."

Berkeley Schools Superintendent Rodney Thompson says he's ready to work with the city and praises Newman-Blackwell as a big supporter of education.

"We'll do whatever it takes to get it done," he says.

Thompson says the district is going to put out a request for proposals from landowners in the Tanner Plantation/Foster Creek area because - as he and several board members say - land is scarce in the area.

Thompson says every piece of property is on the table. That includes the Bowen tract, although he concedes it is on the small side - another concern Hanahan had.

"It was the most shovel-ready, in our opinion," Thompson explains.

Hanahan officials say they would take another look at that tract if the application were more complete. They don't want to antagonize the district - they just want a school. And they are under the impression the school board promised to work with the community group, although that seems less clear when talking with district officials.

With luck, and cooperation, Thompson says the new school could open in January or August 2016.

Neither side wants to be the one to break the peace, and both know this is a sensitive matter.

"They care about their schools," says school board member Kathy Schwalbe, "and emotions can start running high."

The best solution would be for the two sides to work together, as they both say they want to do. As Don Corleone said, all this fighting is bad for business.

And it's bad for students in crowded schools.

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