District 5 Can’t Quench Thirst for Growth

February 1, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveKim Murphy
Citizen Reporter

In their fervor to expand athletic facilities at one of its high schools, Lexington-Richland District 5 is willing to spend over $600,000 of taxpayers’ money – in other counties – for stream and wetlands mitigation.

That’s on top of the cost to fill in 1,500 feet of creek and almost an acre of wetlands and in addition to the outlay for the added ball fields and related facilities.

In exchange for allowing them to build three new ball fields, an expansive field house, ball field parking lots, roadways and associated field support facilities atop a creek and wetlands at Chapin High School, the school district administration has proposed to pay to restore and enhance water areas in Greenville and Newberry counties, to the tune of $612,000.

According to a proposal obtained by The Nerve, stream mitigation in Newberry County will cost $598,376 and officials with the Grove Creek Mitigation Bank in Greenville County say that wetlands mitigation will cost approximately $14,000.

During discussion to justify the expansion plan in their request to the Corps for the required environmental disturbance permit, District 5 stated, “the applicant has identified the most reasonable and best use of taxpayer monies.”

However, the district’s permit request is at a standstill, as is the school’s entire renovation plan. Unlike the somewhat lenient requirements at the state Department of Education’s Office of School Facilities, the agency that oversees school construction, to obtain a permit to add fill to waters, applicants must satisfy certain requirements – albeit stringent – mandated by the Corps. DHEC must also sign off on the plan.

The project, approved by voters in the 2008 $243 million bond referendum, according to agencies involved, is being held in abeyance for several reasons. Central for the delay has been District 5’s failure to “clearly demonstrate, in writing, that there are no ‘practicable alternatives’ which would fulfill the ‘overall project purpose’ of the proposed work” that would avoid or reduce fill needed.

“They want to put these ball fields wherever they want, no matter the cost, and are willing to pay $600,000 in another county to do that? Sounds like they want their cake and eat it too,” said Wayne Duncan who served on the district’s pre-bond referendum building committee.

Duncan said that the $600,000 and related costs to expand the athletic facilities might be better spent on improving academic facilities at the school – especially on those improvements that were used to sell voters on the bond referendum which are now being cut out of the plan.

In fact, while the cost of the athletic expansion grows, academic improvements promised in the bond referendum for the school project are being substantially reduced – unbeknownst to voters.

The touted classroom expansion to 1,700 students has been whittled down to less than its current enrollment of 1,300 students – a move that will likely lead to construction of a new high school in the most rural part of the district. And science and fine arts amenities that were used to entice support from voters have all but disappeared.

The Corps is waiting on receipt of further documentation from District 5 before it offers its ruling on final mitigation, but costs may increase and a redesign of the site plan is certain.

But the issue at hand is much greater than whether education dollars should be spent on athletic facilities or academic facilities. It is a matter of accountabilitytransparency and honesty.

The administration is vehement about keeping the issue quiet – even to school board members. On Sept. 14, District 5 superintendent Herb Berg went as far as denying there was a “wetlands problem.” When asked by school board member Jan Hammond at that public meeting if there was a concern, Berg simply stated, “There are no protected wetlands.”

Berg also failed to mention that just six days prior to that meeting, District 5’s required public notice for the disturbance request was filed. It wasn’t until Jan. 10, 2010 – four months later – the issue was made public by FITSNews.com.

But not only did the administration clearly mislead the board, while trying to make its case to justify the “need” for the additional athletic facilities at the high school, they mislead the federal agency.

In attempting to persuade the Corps to accept their expansion proposal, District 5 stated in their letter to them that a key reason for the proposed expanded athletic facilities is that the high school must also “meet the needs of Chapin Middle School’s extra-curricular athletic activities” because the middle school “does not have any athletic facilities as its layout does not allow for outdoor athletics.”

Yet, contrary to District 5’s statement to the Corps, an expensive outdoor athletic project has already been proposed and approved at the middle school. As part of the 2009-2013 five-year capital budget, the board approved funding $2.5 million to build a ball field and an athletic support facility at Chapin Middle School.

But as they embark on a $243 million building program, it gets worse. While still endeavoring to make it case to the Corps, District 5 stated that Chapin’s construction budget estimate of $32.7 million “is currently $6 million (18 percent) over budget.”

However, the district is now making the claim that it has no budget.

After acquiring District 5’s letter to the Corps, at the Jan. 11 board meeting, The Nerve questioned whether the Chapin project was over budget on the site plan portion or the building plan. In a written response District 5 asserted:

“The building plan and site plan construction budgets will not be determined until a bid has been accepted by the school board for this project. Once accepted, that dollar amount will become our budget and it’s our intention not to exceed that amount. However, we are concerned that the cost of the project may be over that we had projected.”

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