District 5 Appears Set for Secret Purchases

February 8, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveKim Murphy
Citizen Reporter

 

The Lexington-Richland District 5 school board is likely to vote to buy land for new school sites in the undeveloped area of northwest Richland County following financial offers made to property owners by administration representatives, according to the agenda for tonight’s meeting.

Sources say that offers have been made on two tracts of land, both along Broad River Road.

The problem is that the board never voted in the first place to authorize the district administration to “negotiate” or “make offers” with taxpayer money as required by the S.C. Freedom of Information Act – which mandates that “public business be performed in an open and public manner ….” and District 5 appears to be heading down the same road of secrecy it traveled in 2006.

The school sites are located in the most rural part of the district and some wonder if their placement is to aid residential developers by creating a public need for water and sewer lines … and a free sales tool.

The largest tract, 81 acres, is supposedly being pursued as an elementary school site and is situated in an area not only where young children are virtually nil, but the entire area is very sparsely populated.

With already declining enrollment in District 5, a concern is that a new elementary school built in that rural area, which is well beyond a proposed major sewer lift station (LS #1 on embedded map) and a lengthy force main that Richland County Utilities, an arm of Richland County, unsuccessfully attempted to place on its Master Sewer Plan in 2007, is being built to stimulate development and will draw people away from existing community schools.

It is important to note that according to a lawsuit won by the Mungo Co. in 1995, the developer, “in order to serve any property … may at its option, install collector, trunk, outfall or other lines or mains or other waste water collection sub-systems (including pump stations) to transport sewage from its development to Richland County’s treatment facility,” as long as the improvements are shown on the Master Sewer Plan.

(The caveat: Though the company must provide the capital upfront, Richland County is required by the court order to reimburse the Mungo Co. or any affiliate in the form of tap certificates “for all costs of installing such facilities, regardless of size including but not limited to engineering fees, materials, labor, easement acquisition and condemnation costs and attorney’s fees.”)

The construction of major sewer infrastructure – lift stations and force mains – would now be required to serve a new school and probably at taxpayers’ expense, as Richland County Utilities required of District 5 for Oak Pointe Elementary off Kennerly Road in 2006.

In a May 2009 school board meeting, board member Carol Sloop offered her concern during conversation of elementary school sites.

“I don’t think we need to have this discussion until we have the exact numbers of where these kids are right now. That’s the biggest problem we have. We need to get the numbers before we decide anything,” said Sloop. “The perception is if we put the schools out there (northwest Richland County) the builders will follow. So we better have some concrete numbers to talk about before we talk about putting a school there. It is just going to validate everything that is said.”

The second parcel is a 10-acre tract in the same rural northwest Richland County area and sits in the middle of several parcels District 5 began accumulating for a high school, middle school, and CATE center – just prior to the rezoning of a 240-acre tract owned by the Mungo Co. in 2004 – directly across the street from the school sites. The Mungo tract was rezoned to 500 home sites but has yet to be developed. (Black square on embedded map indicates 10-acre tract.)

In 2006, the school district failed to disclose it purchased 58 acres adjacent to the 10-acre site along Broad River Road. According to court records, it paid $1 million for two adjoining lots.

But it skipped an important step, according to Jay Bender, one of the state’s leading South Carolina Freedom of Information Act attorneys.

“They didn’t authorize negotiations,” Bender told The State newspaper after reviewing a copy of the document then-Superintendent Scott Andersen signed. “They authorized the approval of a contract.”

Bender went on to say, “This school board is doing what it has traditionally done and that’s trying to avoid public scrutiny for what it’s doing.”

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