Berkeley’s Ailing Schools Get Strong Medicine
New schools built, others remodeled under $192 million building program
Before May 22, 1999, Berkeley schools were on the critical list.
Mold caked classroom walls, a lack of laboratories tested teachers’ patience, and termites swarmed to music.
Student assemblies sweltered in gymnasiums without air conditioning, outdated wiring repeatedly crashed computers, and kids dashed through puddles outside hundreds of mobile classrooms.
Dim lighting, noisy window air conditioners and too many students in too few buildings made learning more challenging across Berkeley County.
That was then.
Four years after the day voters agreed to fix Berkeley schools through a $192 million bond issue, the largest in state history at the time, new buildings are rising, mobile classrooms are being hauled off and student morale has been boosted. The bonds are being retired through a property tax increase that fluctuates in size over the next 20 years.
How far did the massive bond issue go?
For 17 of the district’s 37 schools, it’s done plenty. Other schools continue to add mobile classrooms, struggle with overcrowding and await an infusion of money. Politics played a part in determining which schools got money and which didn’t. Half of the district’s 26,000 students had to dodge building projects while attending classes; and still all the problems aren’t solved.
Berkeley has gleaming new schools not far from others buckling under too many students. And once again, the district is about to ask voters for more money. Population continues to grow, with thousands of new homes on the way, and talks are already under way about building more schools. With the district’s bonding capacity tapped out, some creative financing could be in the offing.
Before building campaign has even driven its last nail, Berkeley voters are faced with a familiar question: Will there be another tax increase?
WHERE THEY WERE
Berkeley was a learning system on life-support.
- Mold and mildew nearly killed an asthmatic teacher at Whitesville Elementary. The same school grouped students not by their abilities but by allergies because of out-of-control mold in one wing.
- A science teacher at Berkeley High left for neighboring Dorchester schools because of inadequate laboratories.
- In-school suspension conjured up a whole new meaning for students at Hanahan High. The room was a windowless, underground holding cell called “The Dungeon.”
- Football players nearly fell through the floor of a makeshift workout room at Goose Creek High.
- Rainstorms sent water flowing down the halls of 1920s-era J.K. Gourdin Elementary, the district’s oldest functional schoolhouse. That’s also where the melancholy notes of an oboe from a special Charleston Symphony Orchestra performance sent termites swarming out of the walls and into the audience.
- At Berkeley High, the entire female faculty waited in line for the lone teacher toilet.
- At many schools, mobiles were so thick that campuses looked like trailer parks. Whitesville, Bonner and Boulder Bluff elementary schools looked like Devon Forest today, with more classrooms outside than inside.
SPENDING THE MONEY
Early on, district officials decided a slew of elementary schools would get the initial batch of money. Mold-plagued Whitesville, termite-infested Gourdin and trailer-trashed Bonner and Boulder Bluff took $38.3 million. All-new Westview Primary took another $14.1 million, relieving neighboring Westview Elementary and Middle of gross overcrowding and 16 mobile units.
Other schools soon saw masons and carpenters, and complex projects awaited the high schools, especially Berkeley and Hanahan, where almost entirely new schools would sprout up on the existing hallways that generations of students trod before.
In all, Berkeley County is spending $7,300 per student to fix its schools. By comparison, Charleston County is in the middle of a $429 million building program, or $9,839 per student, to repair its aging schools.
Today in Berkeley, contractors cart away mobile units, crews gnaw down old buildings and students frolic on playgrounds, not the uncovered wooden sidewalks that connected villages of mobile classrooms.
To date, nine schools are complete. At six other schools, full construction is under way, and two are just getting their footings.
“There’s no comparison,” Superintendent Chester Floyd said of the before and after schools. “Our facilities are much, much better. They’re safer, more conducive to learning and will reduce stress that teachers have to deal with.”
The money built three new schools — Goose Creek Primary, Westview Primary and Sangaree Middle — all to handle the bloated conditions brought on by explosive residential growth during the last decade on the county’s southern end.
Children now wind through Westview’s spoked design, and they’ll soon enter classrooms on the shores of Goose Creek Reservoir, where hallways are dubbed Egret’s Perch and Otter Landing. They’ll have to wait a year or so to settle into Sangaree’s new school, which is being built on earthquake pilings. Construction just started there.
“This is about like heaven,” Whitesville Principal Luretha Sumpter said of her new mold-free school, once among the worst. It was among the first to be completed.
Gone are the energy-eating mobile units that obscured the entire front of the school. Gone, too, is that nasty old wing with an incurable mildew problem left behind by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
Other schools saw their share of improvements as well.
‘300 PERCENT BETTER’
At Bonner Elementary, 25 learning cottages, as Principal Melvin Rose referred to the mobile units, and five separate buildings gave way to a completely connected school, freeing students from the temperamental elements and improving security dramatically.
“It’s fabulous,” he said. “It’s a much better environment for the students, staff and the entire community. Before, you could get into the campus through several entrances. People could roam anywhere. Now, there’s only one way in.”
At Hanahan Middle, the school’s award-winning band no longer practices in a trailer. Even amid the rattle of hammers and the beeps of heavy machinery at Cainhoy Elementary-Middle, morale is so much higher because the school was included in the district building program that a student finds reason to whistle down the hall.
“It makes us feel better because all the other schools are getting built onto and it doesn’t make us feel left out,” seventh-grader Carratus Wright said.
At St. Stephen Middle, absenteeism due to illness is down because students aren’t trudging through the cold and rain to mobile classrooms.
“It makes for a better learning environment,” reading deficiencies teacher Neva Peagler said.
At St. Stephen Elementary, secretary Gwen Mazyck’s eyes light up at the sight of movers hitching up the last of 28 mobile classrooms, many of them moved there during construction.
“They were supposed to be gone last August,” she said. “I’m glad to see them go.”
At Cross High, a science teacher for 30 years now marvels at “the finest lab of her career,” Assistant Principal Daniel Davidson said.
“This is an exciting time for us,” he said, showing off the expanded cafeteria, spacious new band room and renovated classrooms at the county’s smallest high school. “It raises morale.”
Boulder Bluff Principal Kathy Williamson flips through a scrapbook of school photos. “In not one do we show a mobile unit. You don’t understand the impact on education when kids have to deal with the weather when they have to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, go to lunch, go to another classroom or go to arts, music and P.E.”
Walking down the hallways of her school, her voice rises and eyes twinkle as she points out a new conference room, new staff bathrooms and the refurbished cafeteria, where after-school students plug together colorful Legos. To her the old wing is now “the historic district.”
“The citizens of Berkeley County have improved the facilities for their children by 300 percent,” Williamson said. “We are just spoiled rotten.”
At J.K. Gourdin in rural northern Berkeley County, which Floyd called “a horrible facility,” wood-paneled walls gave way to green and white hallways that lead to colorfully decorated classrooms and a well-lit library where students congregate after school for help from community volunteers.
“We were just glad to keep the school,” Principal Roberta White said.
That’s because it almost closed.
School officials considered closing Gourdin and nearby run-down St. Stephen Elementary and merging the two into a new campus. But both communities balked at the proposal. Residents formed committees to save the schools and won the day.
“This is a community meeting place,” White said. “We have wedding receptions, reunions and meetings here. This is all this community has. We didn’t want to lose it.”
Politics, too, played a part in their survival.
Officials were fearful northern Berkeley would oppose the bond effort if the two schools were forced to merge, and Floyd acknowledged during a recent interview that the decision to put some of the money into both the Pineville and St. Stephen communities was made mainly for votes.
In fact, money went to every corner of the county, upgrading at least one feeder school in each community. That, too, helped win over taxpayers sick of sending their children to ramshackle schools on the verge of the 21st century.
The job hasn’t been easy, and the logistics have been complex.
COPING WITH CONSTRUCTION
The monumental task of erecting more than 1.4 million square feet of new space, the equivalent of more than five new Stratford High Schools, is on schedule for completion by August 2004.
To meet that goal, half the district’s 26,000 students have been dodging cranes, backhoes and bulldozers.
To coexist with contractors, at some point schools have had to cut off water, do without computers, split libraries into separate buildings, shift students to mobiles only to move them again for the next phase of construction, force students to park wherever they can find a space and buy umbrellas to shield students walking from the main building to mobiles over uncovered walkways. Hanahan High had to give up home games when mobiles took over the baseball field. At Goose Creek High, the gym came down for a new classroom wing.
Schools have rearranged fire drills, closed cafeterias and trucked in lunch from other schools.
They’ve photographed trophy cases so they can display their trophies identically in new digs, carved fenced paths for students through construction zones, quieted construction crews during PACT testing and, eventually, moved every single desk, chair, computer, microscope, dictionary and classroom article from buildings being dismembered to sparkling and spacious new surroundings.
At Hanahan High, they saved Senior Hill and wrapped the new school around the ancient oak-covered mound. At the new two-story Berkeley High, the school is being built on much the same footprint as the old one-story building, causing students to be moved time and again as different phases of construction are built.
“It’s a contractor’s nightmare,” Floyd said.
It’s also a big problem for the principal.
“But we never lost a single day of instruction, even with all the moving around,” Berkeley High Principal Ben Hodges said.
“I love it,” Berkeley Student Body President Megan Hunt said of her new surroundings. “I’m a little sad I won’t get to see the whole thing completed, but my little brother will.”
But even with all the hammering and nailing going on, schools still have problems, even at some of the new buildings.
LEAKS AND MOLD
Leaky roofs can be found across the district.
Bonner Elementary leaks where new rooflines join the old buildings together. Boulder Bluff Elementary has two leaks that just won’t stop dripping, even after being tended to several times.
The leak in second-grade teacher Earline Fogle’s classroom at Boulder Bluff is so bad, she sometimes has to yell over the splash of water.
“They’ve already changed the ceiling tile six times this year,” she said.
At the once moldy Whitesville Elementary, Sumpter said, “We still have a couple of leaks. I don’t know of a single school in the district that doesn’t have a leak.”
Assistant Superintendent for Operational Services Ken Coffey, who handles school building projects, said all contractors have to be bonded and have a state contractor’s license.
“You are going to have roof leaks with any contractor,” he said.
The district has one-year warranties on all building projects, and contractors on roofing projects in particular will return after that date to repair any problems.
Some of the leaks, such as the one at Boulder Bluff Elementary, turn out not to be roof problems, but air conditioning problems, he said.
By themselves, the leaks are an annoyance at best. At worst, they contribute to breathing problems when mold and mildew build up out of sight.
That was the case at Goose Creek High School last year when Principal John Fulmer thought the school had corrected a mold problem after a student complained of breathing problems.
“We scraped the wall and painted it, but we didn’t check to see if there was mold above the ceiling. There was,” he said. “They don’t teach you building maintenance. You just learn yourself.”
Christine Lyszczasz’s (pronounced Listash) 16-year-old daughter Alexa Reha knows that all too well. She constantly complained of headaches and breathing problems at Goose Creek High. “She goes to school with nasal sprays and drops,” said Lyszczasz, a registered nurse. “If she’s exposed to something, she has to stop