New Schools Delayed to Fund Pet Project

Elementary #19, where all work has stopped.

BLYTHEWOOD – In 2008, voters in Richland School District 2 passed a $306 million bond referendum for certain specified projects, including the construction of several new schools in Blythewood. Now it seems some of those specified projects in Blythewood are either on the block or delayed for the purpose of freeing up funds for a project that was never presented to voters before the 2008 bond was passed — a $40 million Student Education Center that was scheduled to be completed in July of this year. While it is rumored that the Center will be built on property near Two Notch and Clemson roads, possibly on the Clemson Extension Services property, no site has yet been disclosed by the Board. And a completion date is not on the radar.

Among the projects approved for Blythewood in the 2008 bond referendum were Langford Road Elementary, Muller Road Middle, Westwood High School, Elementary #19 on Kelly Mill Road and Elementary #20 to be built at an as-yet-unspecified location.

Now, more than a year after construction began on Elementary #19, the $30 million project is only 43 percent finished and construction is at a standstill with completion backed up at least another year. Elementary #20 has been put on indefinite hold. Sources close to the projects say the delays are intended to produce a savings for the District that is likely earmarked for construction of the planned Student Education Center that has yet to see the light of a full public discussion by the Board.

How did that happen? Via a legal loophole that allowed the Board, on Sept. 11, 2012, to make a $39.5 million change order to what appeared to be a $500,000 District Office renovation study initiated by the Board six months earlier. While the original renovation contract was billed to the public as a feasibility study, it was actually a design-build contract from the start. A design-build contract gives the Board enormous latitude to change any and all components of the contract without public discussion and is rarely used for construction projects for school districts. It is important to note, too, that the District’s 10-year Facility Plan hadn’t called for District Office renovations until the year 2016. The renovation plan now appears to have been little more than a means by which to initiate construction of the Student Education Center without having to go through the ramifications of public approval.

While the proposed Student Learning Center came as a surprise to the Richland 2 public, the fine print in the original RFP (Request for Proposal) actually laid out the Board’s real intent for the Center, stating that because neighborhoods do not provide the amenities critical for a community, the District has a role in providing these.

“Additionally,” the RFP stated, “community amenities normally found in mature neighborhoods are lacking in the region [Richland 2] and the District wishes to utilize its facilities where appropriate to meet the needs of the residents of Richland School District 2.”

Indeed, the proposed Student Education Center is more than a renovation of District Offices; it will include profession-based learning with a full catering operation, a tony snack bar and other school ‘business’ operations — all run, according to Superintendent Dr. Katie Brochu, by students in a high, airy space full of light and glass exterior walls so the public can watch the activities inside.

One District official not authorized to comment on the issue said the Center would also possibly include a public swimming pool. That was the case in a York County, N.C., when Dr. Brochu served as Superintendent in that District. There, a bond referendum was proposed to fund a similar Learning Center that did include a public swimming pool, but the voters rejected the bond. The pool was subsequently removed from the proposal and, at the same time, Dr. Brochu left her position with the District, after which the bond referendum passed a second vote.

The 7-0 vote on Sept. 11, 2012 by the Board for the $39.5 change order changed the project’s focus from the District Office/Community Center to a Student Education Center. This is legal and was directed by the District with the express approval of the Board. But the unseemly aspect of it all is that there was absolutely no heads up for the Richland 2 public. The vote took place after 10 p.m., following a second closed-door session with only two community members still in the audience. Furthermore, the Board’s agenda for the evening included no mention of discussion of, or a vote on, the Center, which runs counter to S.C. open meetings laws.

District officials and Board members have been reluctant to discuss the particulars of the project. However, on Tuesday evening, the Board authorized Superintendent Dr. Katie Brochu to secure a ground lease for 26 acres of land for a 99 year lease. It is presumed that the site is for the Student Education Center.  That information as well as the site location will be disclosed after Dr. Brochu signs the lease.