Chapin Changes Backed Without Public Review

January 13, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveBy Kim Murphy
Citizen Reporter

The Lexington-Richland School District 5 School Board voted unanimously Monday to approve Chapin High School’s renovation and expansion plans as “final” documents and ready for bid, even though plans are incomplete and facts revealed that an onsite wetlands mitigation issue will undoubtedly impact the layout and cost of the already-over-budget project.

The vote was taken without promised public review and input.

The district’s request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow it to fill in 1,500 feet of creek and almost an acre of wetlands in order to construct as many as three new football and soccer fields, a field house, roadways, parking lots, massive retaining walls and subsequent school building additions appears to be held in abeyance.

In response to a board member’s question, Keith McAlister, the district’s director of new design and construction, said, “I can’t tell you that the wetlands mitigation will not stop the construction and renovation of that high school.”

Additionally, in a letter from District 5 sent to the Army Corps of Engineers, a portion of which was read during the public participation part of the meeting, the district claims the renovation project is already 18 percent over its construction budget.

According to the letter, “the project is currently $6 million over-budget” – but this is before the Corps has ruled on mitigation.

Facts surrounding the high school’s wetlands issue first became public on Sunday evening at FITSNews.com, though Robert Gantt, the board chair, admitted, “The process, started months ago.”

It’s clear that district officials have been trying keep the matter hush-hush. At a Sept. 14 school board meeting, Superintendent Herb Berg went as far as denying the issue when a board member asked if there was a “wetlands problem.”

Berg said, “There aren’t any protected wetlands, not what you’re thinking.” Although just six days earlier, the district’s public notice requesting permission to disturb the wetlands was published.

Several community members voiced concerns during public participation that additions and renovations which had originally been part of the school’s project when approved by voters in 2008’s $243 million bond referendum were now shown as either completely deleted from the plans or drawn in as add-alternates.

Those improvements listed as add-alternates would not appear as part of the base bid but bid separately. If the base bid were to come in under budget, then the improvements could be considered again in the project. Chances of getting the promised improvements seem unlikely since District 5 is claiming the project is already over budget by $6 million.

Last night’s decision typified the business-as-usual attitude. The administration and board seemed bent on taking the not-so-final plans out of the public’s eyes by holding this hasty vote.

District 5’s Board Briefs just published on their website and sent out to email subscribers (minus some pertinent facts) say, “Final approval was provided for Chapin High School’s construction documents. The project will go out for bid soon.”

This certainly contradicts Berg’s December commitment to School Improvement Council members that he would hold off on the vote until late February to allow the council, faculty and community the chance to review and offer input on final plans.