Keith McAlister is leaving his mark on Lexington-Richland 5 through the schools he helped build and renovate on the north side of Lake Murray.
It’s a return to skills learned before a brief stint as an Oakland Raiders football player in 1974 that ended when he decided to teach, a career that evolved into his serving as a football coach, principal and assistant superintendent in and around the Midlands.
As McAlister prepares to retire, Lexington-Richland 5 officials call him the spark plug who made a $243 million package of school improvements happen on time and in order in his role as design and construction director.
“He was almost like the quarterback, the guy who made the team go,” veteran Lexington-Richland 5 School Board member Robert Gantt said.
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McAlister’s experience in construction allowed him to work closely with builders and school officials on projects during the past six years, some of them redesigned to increase security.
“He’s our boots-on-the-ground guy, overlooking things and watching out for us,” Superintendent Stephen Hefner said.
Although old-school in style, McAlister is savvy about current trends and devoted to making things better, other educators say.
New schools built under his oversight lack student lockers, an accessory he says is passe for instruction delivered increasingly online instead of through books. And some features were reduced in height to lessen the chance of storm damage.
McAlister’s goal was assuring that students get a good education in up-to-date classrooms.
“It’s always been about impacting young people,” he said of his 40-year career as an educator. “This job was on a bigger scale.”
McAlister’s experience in construction comes from working with his late father, a home builder who developed the Knollwood and Yorkshire neighborhoods in southeast Columbia.
The variety of positions McAlister has held provided insights into how classrooms are used and should be equipped.
He persevered in getting the improvements – one of the largest packages of school renovations in the Midlands – finished despite complaints from anti-tax groups seeking to sidetrack some projects.
School critics complained the plan for three new schools and renovations at seven others was bloated and ill-designed given little enrollment growth expected. An unsuccessful legal challenge delayed improvements at Chapin High for 18 months.
McAlister joined in an effort that school officials called “right-sizing” the package approved by voters in 2008, altering some features and adding others.
Major additions to the original plan include an arts center and gymnasium at Irmo High, a health science center and athletics upgrades at Dutch Fork High and staff offices and athletics upgrades at Chapin High. A new elementary school was shelved.
“It wasn’t about getting ahead,” McAlister said of the improvements. “It was about catching up.”
He now is putting the finishing touches on a list of minor adjustments builders need to make as students and teachers settle into the new facilities, preparing to work a few days weekly instead of retiring completely at 64.
“I’m tying up loose ends,” McAlister said. “I’m practicing winding it down some.”
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483