December 6, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

District 5 Opened School’s Wing Without Permit

The NerveBy Kim Murphy
Citizen Reporter

Lexington-Richland 5 potentially put the safety of kindergarten students and staff at risk to charging ahead with a school construction project.

Following spring break last week, District 5 moved kindergarten students into a new classroom wing at Leaphart Elementary School, but did so prior to receiving the required State Fire Marshal’s review and approval of the fire suppression system and the Department of Education’s certificate of occupancy (CO), according to John Reich, S.C. State Fire Marshal.

An official complaint was filed Thursday with the State Fire Marshal by the author of this report.

However, District 5’s administration not only potentially put children and staff in harm’s way by failing to obtain the necessary approvals, they gave inaccurate information to the school board at their April 12 board meeting.

During the progress report for construction projects at that meeting, Keith McAlister, the district’s director of new design and construction, stated, “We received our CO on Thursday (April 8) of spring break and so we were able to move furniture in and teachers use the last several days of the spring break to get their classrooms set up, so they can begin instruction in there.”

According to Reich, on April 8, an inspector with the Education Department’s Office of School Facilities, the department charged with overseeing school construction, did visit the site and “an inspection was conducted.” But Reich said as of April 15, “No Certificate of Occupancy was issued verbally or in writing at that time, or since the inspection …”

This was further verified in a letter from the project’s architect to the Office of School Facilities dated April 12 – four days following McAlister’s claim that the CO had already been obtained.

The letter acknowledged deficiencies from the initial inspection and a second request for CO approval was made.

However, central to the denial of the initial certificate of occupancy request was the failure to obtain the State Fire Marshal’s approval of the fire protection system.

Moving in prior to obtaining a CO, along with advancing with construction of the system without approval, may have violated state regulations.

Chapter 71, Subarticle 1 of the State Fire Marshal’s Rules and Regulations for Fire Prevention and Life Safety and Section 1108 of the S.C. School Facilities Planning and Construction Guide require, at a minimum, that International Building Code standards apply.

IBC requires the State Fire Marshal’s design approval prior to the start of the fire system’s installation, not after.

And Section 907 of the S.C. School Facilities Planning and Construction Guide states that before occupancy is permitted “all operations for code compliance” are to have been completed and “approval rendered by OSF.”

Prompted by the recent complaint to the Fire Marshal, the process was expedited by the parties involved and District 5 was granted a temporary conditional certificate of occupancy on April 16, but this isn’t the first time District 5’s actions on construction projects have been questioned.

In 2006, The State newspaper reported that District 5 paid a $2,000 fine after the state Department of Health and Environmental Control determined a water system for a new school, Oak Pointe Elementary School, was installed without a permit.

In addition to beginning and completing construction of elementary school’s water line without DHEC’s permit, it proceeded without the mandatory approvals and pre-construction meetings required by the city of Columbia, according to a letter from the city dated March 1, 2006.

(Not only was the original line installed without DHEC and the city’s consent, but that line was pulled up, and replaced with a larger line without any approvals.)

As a result, the city required that District 5 uncover the water line for inspection, according to the letter, and, red-lined drawings showed that upon review of the design, there were an inadequate number of fire hydrants for life safety, requiring more to be added and the relocation of several just-installed hydrants.

District 5 also failed to submit the Final Site package for the school showing Onsite Water Detail to the Office of School Facilities and, according to documents on file with the agency, when the newly installed water line was dug up and replaced, it failed to summit a change order to be reviewed for “adherence to regulations, codes and statutes.”

In November, the board was given erroneous information by the administration related to a land deal.

In what appeared to be an attempt to convince board members to condemn a solely-owned 10-acre tract of land adjacent to the proposed high school site, the board was told that the property was owned by 36-38 individuals who were squabbling over what to do with the land.

Kim Murphy and her family live in Chapin. She serves on the State Workforce Investment Act Board and the Richland County Appearance Commission.

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The Nerve