In 2010, the Charleston County School District needed another bond referendum to keep up with its ever-increasing building needs.
The district presented a bare-bones plan and a slightly more elaborate one, simply to gauge voter reaction. A new Stono Park Elementary was on both lists.
Seems like it was a priority.
And why shouldn’t it be: the 65-year-old school has long outlived its life span and is in deplorable condition. It’s crumbling, filled with mold. When it was built, it didn’t even come with air conditioning.
So yeah, they need a new building.
But all of a sudden the conversation has turned from a new school to whether the West Ashley elementary gets a $6 million or $9 million renovation.
Parents, staff and community leaders are upset, as they should be.
On Monday, Mayor John Tecklenburg appeared before the school board and fired a warning shot. He’s miffed in part because the revitalization of the DuWap neighborhood between Dupont and Wappoo roads is a priority of his, and this doesn’t help.
The mayor urged the board to keep its word, “Particularly if you want to have another referendum in the future, we need to have what the voters voted for.”
And that’s the bottom line.
This is about the district’s already strained credibility.
School Board member Michael Miller, who represents West Ashley, is none too pleased with this. That may have something to do with math.
He says the sales tax for school capital projects is bringing in about $80 million a year, and this is its final year. So far the district has raised $480 million with 10 months to go. If nothing changes, that means at least another $66 million will roll in this year.
The district only needs another $27 million to finish everything on its list — including a $23 million to $26 million Stono Park school.
Miller says there is a legal issue here, that the district has to honor the wording of the bond referendum. But he says the bigger issue is one of good faith — both to voters and the Chamber of Commerce, which ran the campaign for the referendum.
Miller believes the district just doesn’t want to build Stono Park. Instead they want to spend that money to upgrade athletic facilities at area high schools and repave bus lots.
“Schools have to be in front of bus lots and athletic facilities,” Miller says.
He’s absolutely right.
Now some board members cite Stono Park’s declining enrollment as reason for the course correction. It’s a good point: Stono Park has 311 students right now, which is less than other nearby elementary schools.
Oakland has about 550, Ashley River Creative Arts has around 600 and St. Andrew’s is packed with nearly 750 students.
A lot of students at those schools are zoned for Stono Park but go elsewhere thanks to school choice. But things change. Later this year the District 10 constituent board is going to redraw attendance zones to alleviate overcrowding. You will likely see more kids steered back to Stono Park.
The board needs to take that into account.
And Miller says if attendance is an issue, why did the district build a 500-student elementary school on the Sullivan’s Island beachfront when less than 100 kids were actually zoned for the school?
It’s a fair point.
The best reason to rebuild Stono Park — beyond the obvious, which is it’s the right thing to do — goes back to what the mayor said.
Now Tecklenburg has no control over education in the city but he does have a considerable bully pulpit, and he used it admirably and shrewdly on Monday.
He raised the specter of what happens to future bond referenda if the school district changes course at the last minute, or doesn’t live up to its obligations and promises.
Next time, he insinuated, people won’t believe what’s on the ballot. With good reason.
Charleston County is growing nearly beyond the capacity for mere mortals to keep up, and the district needs capital money just to keep pace. District officials are usually pretty good at forecasting needs down the road.
But a lot of people point out that the district’s bond referenda are always filled with new facilities in every corner of the county — sometimes, cynics say, to broaden its base of support.
But that’s not going to help if voters can’t believe what the district says anymore.
The school board needs to think about that, especially since they are going to be asking for another bond referendum in a couple of years.
It will be on the ballot in 2018 or 2020 — bank on it. And if a new Stono Park Elementary isn’t under construction by then, don’t bet on it passing.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com