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District juggling earthquake concerns, bond referendums, and weary parents

Earthquake! (Don't panic.) Panic!

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An earthquake in the Charleston region is far from assured in the next five years — hell, some don't expect another quake for another century or more. But the risk, regardless of the odds, has led the staff at the Charleston County School District to call for four downtown schools to be temporarily shuttered.

A well-documented 1886 earthquake wrecked the peninsula, killing dozens. And the next one isn't a matter of if, but when. As far as peninsula schools are concerned, that may well be tomorrow, and the district isn't taking any chances.

Addressing seismic concerns at the Rivers campus in 2007, district staff warned that other downtown schools could face similar needs. But the district didn't call for an analysis of those concerns until late last year.

"We knew that we needed to address this and get the facts out," says Bill Lewis, the director of the district's building program. "What we didn't expect to come out of this analysis was the dire circumstances."

The results for Buist Academy, Charleston Progressive, James Simmons Elementary, and Memminger Elementary, as well as two unused campuses, revealed schools with serious safety risks in the event of an earthquake. The walls and roofs don't have the support to sustain rapid, intense shaking and, in most cases, the very foundations may shift underneath them, causing the entire building to fall over.

Those factors have led to a swift response from district staff, who are ready to ship most downtown elementary school students to unused buildings in Mt. Pleasant and North Charleston.

Superintendent Nancy McGinley understands the concerns of parents who are worried about the stress of a temporary relocation, but she says the results warrant swift action.

"I believe it to be a moral imperative to move students and faculty out of buildings proven to have seismic challenges," she says.

Shake it (any day now)

District staff have urged the school board to abandon the campuses this summer. Proposals would send kids from these schools, as well as similarly challenged Sullivan's Island Elementary, to empty buildings in the district, including the old Academic Magnet, Berry Campus, Brentwood, and Whitesides.

There's a rough plan to have the unsafe campuses repaired or replaced by 2014, but the district hasn't determined exactly how to pay for the work. There are a lot of costly, technical solutions to the problem, ranging from $7 million to $10 million per school, with other needed improvements putting costs between $20 million and $30 million per school.

The district could borrow the money now, but that would endanger resources if another emergency — say a hurricane — came along and destroyed other school buildings. The district will likely ask voters for a property tax or sales tax hike to address a host of building needs, with these schools at the top of the list.

The school board deferred a decision on temporarily abandoning the schools until the district staff formulates a more concrete plan on where students would go and how the district would pay for repairs.

"I want to make sure we have a full, mature plan," says board member Gregg Meyers. "What I'm hearing from the community is a comprehensive plan is better than a fast one."

Board member Chris Frasier has proposed an alternative that would keep the kids on the peninsula by creatively using existing space, like excess room at the district headquarters near Buist, just in case voters refuse a tax increase.

The kids are alright (enough)

It's the fear of a failed referendum is most troubling for parents, downtown residents, and skeptics of the administration, who think this temporary move might not be that temporary.

Charleston voters have refused tax hikes for school buildings in the past. This year, parents would have a vested interest in getting these schools repaired, but that urgency isn't shared by every voter. For some, that threat outweighs the concern over an earthquake.

Buist dad and local restaurateur Mark Cumins asked school board members to take their time and not offer a knee-jerk reaction.

"I'd sign a waiver that wouldn't hold any of you responsible," he says. "I think most of the parents would do the same thing."

And some think a motivating factor in the urgency of the rhetoric coming from the district is due to a bond or sales tax referendum likely to go before voters this November.

"You want to play on our fears and to give you a virtual blank check," says Henry Copeland, a former constituent board member representing downtown schools.

The voter referendum expeted this fall didn't prompt the move, but the preparation for a fresh round of building improvements led to the seismic review. These schools were already in line for renovations. The work required to bring the campuses up to existing building codes and modern education standards (things like media centers and gymnasiums) would have meant temporarily relocating students anyway.

And the district can actually use these seismic results to seek out federal funding for repairs — possibly obtaining millions of dollars in a program similar to one that helped with the Dock Street Theatre rehab.

What about me? (Not now)

Getting flak for working too quickly to pull kids out of these schools, the district is also being criticized for not working fast enough to determine whether similar problems exist at other schools.

After looking underneath Sanders Clyde in early 2006, district staff warned of dramatic soil settling, suggesting the existing structure was unsafe during an earthquake. Students were removed for more than three years while a new school was built.

Asked then why other downtown schools weren't similarly threatened, Lewis used Memminger as an example, telling The Post and Courier that its soil was good compared to Sanders Clyde.

That argument could likely still be made. But, had the district performed this seismic analysis then, it would have likely made the same recommendation to empty the unsafe schools.

Lewis says the district is limited in what it can do because of financing and manpower, and that the risk-based assessment the district uses is based on similar federal protocols.

"It takes time to transform an inventory," Lewis says of the methodical effort to slowly analyze each site. "You go after the highest risks first."

Over the next two years, consultants will be commissioned for similar seismic reviews of other multi-story buildings. They'll then move on to single-story schools and then new campuses designed to meet existing standards.

Lewis says that structures are different at other schools and able to take more stress in the event of an earthquake. And other concerns at downtown schools regarding unsafe lights or ceilings have been upgraded elsewhere in the district over the last decade.

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