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District decides on quake relocations

Shifting picture on campus destinations

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What you need to know:

• The school board approves moving Memminger and James Simmons elementary schools to trailer sites at Mitchell and Marlowe parks. The move would keep those students on the peninsula and provide North Charleston's Brentwood campus as an additional option for Buist parents concerned about a long drive to the old Wando campus.

• Memminger and James Simmons would likely have to wait on trailers until Jan. 2011, but Buist, Charleston Progressive, and Sullivan's Island should be able to relocate in August.

• The board did want to hear the potential for the Archer and Frasier campus grounds to house trailers for Buist and Charleston Progressive, but district staff has seemed cool to this idea because of the cost of demolition and required zoning approval.

The timeline:

1:10 p.m.: McGinley says requests started coming in immediately to transfer students to schools that are already overcrowded or have a waiting list.

There was no decision on staff and teachers who might want to get out of unsafe buildings.

Insurance coverage rates may be impacted. Employee safety a factor.

1:15 p.m.: Alternative plan would put Memminger on mobile campus across from Mitchell Elementary. James Simmons would be moved to mobile campus at Marlowe Park. That would give Buist an alternative option (old Wando or Brentwood). Charleston Progressive would still go to Berry. Suillivan's Island elementary still set for Whitesides.

1:20: The alternative would increase temporary relocation costs from $1.56 million to $5.37 million. District staff still wants Buist, Progressive, and Sullivan's at temp housing next fall. Mitchell and James Simmons would likely have to wait for mobiles until Jan. 2011.

1:25: Board member Gregg Meyers warns staff to be clear to parents and teachers that these aren't the only schools with seismic concerns. They're just the only schools that have been extensively studied.

1:30: Important to note that one vote for delaying a move, board member Ray Toler, is not at the meeting.

Ann Opplinger, who voted for the move, is mad (and I've never seen her mad): "I can not understand why anyone would chose convenience over their child's safety."

1:35: Arthur Ravenel says it would cost too much to keep Mitchell and James Simmons students in trailers on the peninsula. (Note: Ravenel is the one who led the district to pay for trailers for the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science.) 

1:40: Ravenel doesn't understand why this work can't be done incrementally during the summer break. District staff: Too complicated. Most of these school buildings will need to be replaced, not repaired.

1:50: Discussion has diverted to the real threat at Sullivan's Island Elementary.

1:55: Opplinger challenges Chris Collins about whether he would put his daughter in one of those schools. He tells her its up to the parent to make that decision.

2 p.m.: Board member Toya Hampton-Green says it should be the board's decision, not left to the parents."Telling parents to transfer is logistically a nightmare. Most of our best schools are at capacity." She makes the assertion that the earthquake risk increases with time. The threat is not time-sensitive. If it were, we're a good 150 years from another quake.

2:05: Elizabeth Kandrac says that the threat has been known for years.

2:10: Gregg Meyers playing ref. "The board needs to recognize there are different ways to look at this issue. … Lets not attack each other's good will." Likes the more expensive alternative. Says it's much more acceptable, but would like to see better alternatives for Buist and Charleston Progressive that could keep them on the peninsula.

2:15: Chris Frasier says, "We can't keep kicking the can down the road." Wants the board to make a decision and reconsider if a better alternative is presented later.

2:20: Ruth Jordan, who was in favor of the original proposal: "To bring this full circle …" Oh, I feel a vote coming up.

She says that the $5 million cost for the alternatives that would keep kids on the peninsula isn't reasonable. One week after the majority of the board says go slower, Jordan says the district has "exhausted all the options."

2:25: Gregg Meyers says he doesn't mind spending extra money. "We've increased the choices. I don't have any hesitation to approve the modified move of James Simmons, Memminger, and Sullivans."

2:30: Arthur Ravenel ready to change his vote and support original relocation plan.

2:45: The school board, so far, has refused a proposal to move Memminger and James Simmons elementary schools to trailer sites at Mitchell and Marlowe parks. The move would have provided an additional option for Buist parents concerned about a long drive to the old Wando campus.

2:50: Motions flying, but board seems stalled with eight members present. Where are you Ray Toler!!

2:55: Ruth Jordan is ready to wrap up the discussion, but Nancy McGinley says the staff still needs direction on giving parents options.

3:10: Issue of transportation costs looks like it is swinging Ruth Jordan's vote. She's ready for mobile units for Memminger and James Simmons. This could be a breakthrough.

3:20: The board votes in support of moving Memminger to the Mitchell Park and James Simmons to the Marlowe Park downtown. That would give Buist parents a second option, either Buist or Brentwood. Sullivans Island would still go to Whitesides and Charleston Progressive would still go to the Berry Campus.

The background:

Downtown parents will decide this summer whether they will continue to send their children to four aging downtown schools that fail to meet earthquake standards. Meanwhile, the school district is looking at new options from the City of Charleston before making final decisions on where to relocate the schools in January.

As part of the district's next round of building improvements, the campuses of Buist Academy, Charleston Progressive, and Memminger and James Simmons elementary were studied for seismic deficiencies. The district found soil trouble at the old Sanders Clyde Elementary in 2006 and structural concerns at Rivers Middle School in 2007, so it was of little surprise when the reports came back that these schools were unsafe. But, with suggestions of serious life-safety concerns in hand, district staff recommended moving the students off the peninsula this summer.

The school board rejected the recommendation last week with a 3-6 vote. Chairwoman Ruth Jordan, Toya Hampton-Green and Ann Opplinger supported the move, but the majority of the board wanted to wait to consider other options, including the mayor's offer of aid.

"I would prefer that we have a downtown solution for downtown," said board member Gregg Meyers.

The board moved forward with paying for the improvements and accommodating parents who aren't willing to wait for the schools to relocate in January.

Calling for a slower process, parents have railed against the proposal to send these schools to unused buildings in North Charleston and Mt. Pleasant for three years while the downtown campuses are rebuilt.

Parent Mark Brandenburg told the school board that there was no reason to move so fast on relocating students, considering earthquakes have been a known possibility for more than 100 years.

"It's a false argument," he said. "This is information you've had for years."

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley pledged that he would help the district come up with a better solution than bussing children off the peninsula and away from their communities.

"Push a little harder and take a little longer to see if there is any value in that," he said. "Make sure everything possible is being considered to not harm that fragile relationship between parents and teachers and schools."

The district was able to come up with the $175 million for the work, including replacing Sullivan's Island Elementary School. The district will borrow the money if necessary, but hope voters will approve a new penny sales tax in November to cover the cost.

Staff say alternatives on the peninsula aren't reasonable, pointing to limited space for trailers at places like the Rivers campus.

"We don't have 10-20 acres," says Bill Lewis, chief operating officer for capital programs. "We have three acres."

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