To Build Or Not To Build?

That is the question vexing Stono Park Elementary

LaToya Bennett, who attended Stono Park Elementary, now has three children at the 66-year-old school. (Photo By Maggie Davis)LaToya Bennett, who attended Stono Park Elementary, now has three children at the 66-year-old school. (Photo By Maggie Davis)

February 17, 2016
By Bill Davis | News Editor

Parents at Stono Park Elementary, like LaToya Bennett, are concerned and angry that the county school district is about to nix building a new school for them.

Bennett has three children at the 66-year-old school, ranging from pre-school to fifth grade. Stono Park is a heavily majority black school with high poverty levels. It also boasts some of the best student testing scores in the county.

An alumna of the school, Bennett has nothing but high praise for the teachers and the administration of the school, but finds the facilities more than lacking.

Mold in one of the units of the trailer farm located in the back of the main school building highlights the cramped situation at the school. “And the smell in the bathrooms … woo!”

From the outside, Stono Park looks like it has been teleported from mid-century Florida, and not in a good way. Inside, it’s clean, and the sound of kids playing after school rings down the hallways Friday afternoon.

In 2010, Charleston County voters approved a special local one-cent sales tax to build new schools and renovate older ones. The tax will likely bring in more than a half-billion dollars, higher than originally projected, according to county officials.

Schools to be affected by the building program were listed under three categories on the referendum: new construction, construction and equipping of, and renovate.

Stono Park was listed with several other schools in the middle category. Over the past six years, every one of the schools listed in that “construction and equipping” category was given a brand new facility.

“Every. Single. One,” said Bennett.

A new Stono Park would cost in excess of $26.6 million.

Last fall, district staff recommended to the full School Board to move Stono Park onto the renovation list. Jeff Borowy, in charge of the district’s capital projects, relied on research done by other staffers, said the money could be better.

Last Monday, in a special work session, the School Board voted to bring the matter for a full discussion and vote at its Feb. 22 meeting.

Renovating the school, Borowy said Friday from a family funeral in Ohio, would cost only $9 million, allowing the district to fund major athletic improvements at 10 high schools, including West Ashley High School, with the remaining $17 million, among other projects.

School Boardmember Mike Miller, who represents parts of West Ashley, voted against measure. He was aghast when told by staffers there weren’t enough students at the school to justify the expenditure.

“We built a school, a beachfront school the only one of its kind in the country, for 500 students at Sullivans Island Elementary,” Miller said. He added that the Dist. 10 Constituent Board, which oversees some of the functions of county schools in West Ashley, could assign more kids to the school with a stroke of a pen.

“The district built Charleston Montessori for 260 kids,” said Bennett, wielding county district paperwork.

Miller questioned the legality of reclassifying the project at Stono Park, saying that while it may work well with the desires of the district to reprioritize money, it may not jibe with the desires of the voters who approved the referendum in 2010.

School Boardmember Tripp Wiles, a lawyer, said some have conceived the wording and the work that followed as a promise to the community to rebuild Stono Park. Wiles, who voted to discuss the issue next week, declined to give a legal opinion, as it is not in his field of practice.

A request for comment from the school district’s legal counsel on that question was not returned.

Dist. 10 Constituent Boardmember Tamara Avery said expanding the school’s attendance zone was under discussion. Avery’s board also voted unanimously to ask the full School Board to fund the new school; though Avery riled some by saying she sided with the district’s findings, but voted as a representative of other parents.

City Councilman Bill Moody, whose district includes Stono Park, said a new school could alleviate some of West Ashley’s traffic issues by building a facility that could stop parents “clamoring to send their kids to Buist Academy, Orange Grove, St. Andrews School of Math and Science.”

Borowy pointed out some problems with new-school supporters. One, schools in West Ashley are generally below capacity, and population growth trends point further down Savannah Highway.

Also, the Montessori school Bennett mentioned, was built on the campus of Springfield Elementary, and will share common areas, like a library, a cafeteria, and the like, according to Borowy.

Borowy said he stands by his recommendation, but will follow the direction of the School Board and its Feb. 22 vote.

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