An affluent Columbia neighborhood has hired a lobbyist and an attorney to try to get rezoned for some of Richland 1’s most coveted schools, raising questions about whether an unwanted precedent will be set.
Homeowners in Gregg Park, a 200-home gated community off Forest Drive, say they’re taking the unusual approach so current and future neighborhood children can attend the public schools located closest to the neighborhood.
Currently, a few of the community’s roughly 70 school-age children attend the Richland 2 public schools for which they’re zoned. Most attend private schools, according to residents.
A potentially bigger payoff awaits neighbors than access to sought-after schools.
The rezoning would increase property values by as much as 5 to 15 percent, according to two Columbia real estate agents, including one who sells houses in the neighborhood. The homes, which have fetched between $370,000 and $750,000 in the last two years, also could sell more quickly.
The neighborhood must convince a majority of Richland County’s 17 state lawmakers to agree to the rezoning.
No lawmakers or school officials are publicly criticizing Gregg Park’s rezoning proposal — even though some have raised concerns it could open the door for other neighborhoods with cash and clout to get into the public schools of their choice.
“When you look at it from a macro level, if you’re going to start carving out and allowing neighborhood shifts, that just opens up the door, you know? Where do you draw the line on that?” said Craig Plank, a Richland 2 school board member who deferred to lawmakers as to whether the neighborhood should be rezoned.
Neighbors are serious about succeeding.
They have paid their lobbyist, Damon Jeter, a former school board member and former Richland County councilman, about $12,000 so far to persuade state lawmakers to make the change. With help from their attorney, they point to confusion about which district they are zoned for, saying a 1953 agreement gives the neighbors the choice to attend Richland 1. And their state representative, Republican Rep. Kirkman Finlay, introduced legislation in May to move the neighborhood into Richland 1.
Buyers want Brennen, Crayton and Flora
When house hunters call about the homes for sale in the gated Gregg Park neighborhood, their first question is, “Which schools are the homes zoned for?”
“When I say, ‘Richland 2,’ they say, ‘I want my kids to go to Brennen or Satchel Ford (elementary schools in Richland 1),’” said Rawlings LaMotte, a Columbia real estate agent and Gregg Park homeowner. “Then they don’t look at any of (the Gregg Park houses).”
Richland 1 schools — Brennen Elementary, Crayton Middle and A.C. Flora High — are just 1 or 2 miles away, nestled in the heart of Forest Acres near shopping and the other amenities that make Gregg Park a downtown neighborhood, he said.
The Richland 2 schools for which the neighborhood is now zoned lie outside of town and are mostly served by families in Northeast Richland, he added.
Those Richland 2 schools mean Gregg Park homes sell for less than homes zoned for coveted Richland 1 schools, said Bobby Curtis, a real estate agent with experience selling homes in the neighborhood.
Recent home sales bear the claim out.
Homes in nearby Kings Grant, also a gated neighborhood that offers newer, larger homes, fetch higher prices per square foot — $137 to $191 per square foot — compared to Gregg Park homes that have sold for $113 to $185 per square foot.
The difference? Kings Grant is zoned for Richland 1’s Brennen, Crayton and A.C. Flora.
Curtis knows firsthand that perception of schools drives demand for homes in certain neighborhoods. Years ago, he and his family moved from Northeast Richland to an older home in Lake Katherine so his son could attend the high-quality Richland 1 schools there.
“(Lake Katherine is) zoned for Brennen, Crayton, Flora,” he said. “My buyers much prefer the newer Gregg Park homes, but that’s why property values for these older homes (in Forest Acres) have sustained.”
Don’t ‘drive past Forest Lake’
Distance might not be the only factor driving the effort.
The perception that the Richland 2 schools the neighborhood is currently zoned for are inferior drove a previous effort by the neighborhood to move to Richland 1.
“My memory was that it was test scores and just a general feeling that the schools were inferior in Richland 2,” said Chris Koon, a Gregg Park resident and past president of the homeowners’ association in 2012-13 when residents explored moving to Richland 1.
“That’s what kind of drove me, when I was the president of the HOA, to invite administrative folks from (Richland 2) to make a presentation. They argued very persuasively that it wasn’t true.”
After the presentation, the neighborhood dropped the issue, Koon said.
Recent test scores underscore why the perception may exist.
More than 60 percent of students at Brennen met or exceeded expectations on English and math standardized tests last school year, outpacing their statewide peers, 40 percent of whom met or exceeded expectations.
Trailing their peers statewide, students at Forest Lake Elementary — the Richland 2 school Gregg Park is currently zoned for — had 31 percent of students meet or exceed expectations on English standardized tests. Thirty-seven percent performed the same in math.
Brennen also has less poverty than Forest Lake, with 44 percent of its students meeting federal poverty definitions compared to 67 percent of students at Forest Lake.
Forest Lake Principal Kappy Steck urged parents not to focus on test scores or “drive past Forest Lake” without visiting the school.
The NASA Explorer technology school now offers another magnet option, the Early Learning Collaborative, to challenge motivated, high-achieving students. In March both were recognized as National Magnet Schools of Distinction. And last year, the school became one of only 70 schools nationwide to receive accreditation in its STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.
Both magnets keep waiting lists of parents who want in from outside the attendance zone, Steck said.
And if Gregg Park or other families don’t believe her, she points to surveys from the people who know the school best.
Those surveys, conducted last year, show that teachers, parents and students are just as satisfied, if not more satisfied, with Forest Lake’s learning environment, social and physical environment and school-to-home relations as their counterparts at Brennen.
“If they would come here and look and spend a little bit of time here, and I mean a little time, they would feel extremely happy about where their tax dollars are going and they would make Forest Lake a choice,” Steck said.
Momentum for Gregg Park
Some Richland County state lawmakers already have expressed support — or at least an openness — to the neighborhood’s case, persuaded by the argument that they want to be zoned for schools closest to them.
In addition to Republican representative Finlay, supporters include state Rep. Todd Rutherford, the most powerful Democrat in the S.C. House, and state Sens. Darrell Jackson and Mia McLeod, Democrats who represent voters in Richland 2.
“I’m not saying I want it to be bad for District 2. But historically, you’ve not had too many situations where upper middle class neighborhoods were asking to move into District 1,” Jackson said, referring to the trend of affluent white families fleeing Richland 1 for the suburbs in Richland 2.
Officials in Richland 1 and 2 declined to weigh in on the rezoning request, saying it was lawmakers’ decision to make.
But some noted the change would pose challenges for both districts.
For example, the addition of Gregg Park on the rolls of the high-demand Richland 1 schools could displace other students in the district who request transfers to those schools. And Brennen Elementary is over capacity already, according to district records.
And for Richland 2, the change would mean the loss of a valuable property tax base that funds new facilities and school safety improvements. The district is asking voters in November to approve borrowing nearly $470 million for those purposes.
State Rep. Joe McEachern says he knows of two neighborhoods that could benefit from a debate over moving Richland 1 boundaries: Some residents of the rural Cedar Creek community near Fairfield County are closer to Richland 2’s schools, and the Washington Heights neighborhood, just east of Interstate 77 on Hardscrabble Road, is split down the middle by the two districts.
Other lawmakers are less concerned that Gregg Park would invite copycats.
“Both districts have amazing schools, and I suspect that those who are already in Richland 2 schools will want to remain there,” McLeod said.
Two paths to Richland 1
Gregg Park residents are mounting two arguments to get rezoned for Richland 1 schools:
▪ Confusion over the location of the school districts’ legal border.
The boundary between Richland 1 and Richland 2 in the Fort Jackson area is unclear in legal documents. Fort Jackson used to include the 167-acre tract that became the Gregg Park neighborhood in the 1980s. A 1961 survey of the school districts follows imaginary township lines and relies on landmarks such as buildings that no longer exist, which would make retracing the line difficult to do with certainty. One solution, say state mapping officials, is to establish a new border with help from school district officials.
▪ A historic agreement with Fort Jackson.
A 1953 agreement between Fort Jackson and Richland 2, appears to allow children on the fort to request transfers to Richland 1 schools. Those schools had better curriculum options, fort leaders said at the time. However, it’s unclear whether the agreement ever became official. A search of the state archives so far has failed to produce evidence, state officials say.