NE Richland voters will decide if schools can borrow millions for safety, facilities

Fans watch the football game between Blythewood and Ridge View high schools at District 2 Stadium at Blythewood in 2016.
Fans watch the football game between Blythewood and Ridge View high schools at District 2 Stadium at Blythewood in 2016.

Whether Richland School District 2 can borrow $468 million over five years rests in voters’ hands as northeast Richland County considers authorizing the district to issue bonds to improve safety and security, rebuild three schools and build two new stadiums, among other things.

Voters will be asked two questions Nov. 6: one asking voters to approve $380.7 million for safety/security and academic improvements district-wide and another asking to borrow $86.5 million for the two stadiums, new and improved field houses at each district high school and a district performing arts auditorium.

The district’s plan has many pieces, but the piece that officials are spending the most time discussing — and would devote the most money on — is safety and security.

Of the $380.7 million up for approval in question one, $289 million would go toward improving safety and security at every Richland 2 campus.

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District officials outlined their plans and shared their concerns, including the ease of access into some schools, at an information session held earlier this month at Brookland Baptist Church Northeast.

“We want to create spaces where we have more of a welcoming landing space for parents,” district Superintendent Baron Davis said.

“In some of our facilities, you walk into the building, you’re kind of ushered into an area that you can be greeted by a receptionist,” Davis said. “Others you can walk straight into the school.”

Davis identified some of the most vulnerable schools at the information session, but The State is not identifying them.

Concerns about access have only increased in recent years because of a number of deadly mass shootings at schools across the country.

Board member Craig Plank said when he joined it four years ago, the board was already taking a look at a 10-year study of the district that raised plenty of questions about safety and security. But shootings at high schools in Santa Fe, Texas, and Parkland, Florida, have increased efforts to address concerns.

“It fueled the momentum,” Plank said of the Parkland shooting, which happened Feb. 14.

“The trajectory just accelerated, more because we have more people coming alongside the district saying, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing, what are we going to do,’” said Plank, a former board chairman. “The amount of emails and phone calls I received after Valentine’s Day of this year were more than I ever received in the last three years.”

District officials seek to address a series of other security vulnerabilities with money from the bonds, including reducing or eliminating the number of portable classrooms used.

Blythewood High School currently uses 20 portables, and the district plans to eliminate those by constructing a new academic house.

Polo Road and Killian elementary schools also have portables, which would be eliminating through minor additions to the each school.

Portable classrooms are “great for us when we’re growing,” said Will Anderson, the district’s executive director of operations and logistics.

“They’re very flexible, that way we don’t have to spend millions of dollars to go build new wings all the time when we grow, but they’re not safe.”

Another portion of the money would pay for improving auxiliary safety and security measures:

Covering school windows in ballistic shatter-proof film.

Improving fencing.

Constructing bollards.

Improving cameras in the schools.

There are nearly 3,000 cameras operating in schools district-wide, but not all of them have the most up-to-date technology.

“Now you can save terabytes of data,” Anderson said of the new camera technology.

“The old ones we have can only save a couple of gigabytes, so we need to just update the entire system,” he said.

Aside from security, officials also seek to address aging facilities and equipment by replacing old HVAC systems, leaky roofs and eliminating mold and mildew at some schools.

Following hurricanes Florence and Michael this year, 13 district schools suffered roof leaks.

A leaky HVAC unit in a Bookman Road classroom recently resulted in mold and mildew in the carpet. Both the unit and the carpet had to be replaced.

The largest-scale facility improvements would be complete rebuilds of Bethel-Hanberry and Forest Lake elementary schools, as well as E.L. Wright Middle School, all of which opened more than 50 years ago.

Tracy Footman, principal at Bethel-Hanberry, said that she has heard from those who would like a new school built, as well as those who do not want to see the original building torn down.

“It has a lot of history,” Footman said of the school building.

“Our school is a school that I would consider a community school,” she continued, referring to its location in the center of Blythewood, and the generations of families that have attended it.

“Some of them will even come back now and say, ‘Wow, it hasn’t changed much at all,’ and that can be heartwarming. But in also looking at a school that was built in the 1940s, and now here we are in 2018, so 21st century now, it’s very different. The needs are different.”

District officials also seek to improve an aging bus fleet by purchasing 25 activity buses.

The district bus fleet has 14 1988-model buses in operation, some of which have had problems with mold and mildew.

“It’s kind of embarrassing that 180 days a year kids are going to and from school on those buses,” Anderson said.

Some of those attending Monday’s information session expressed concerns about the bond’s cost. That concern has been expressed at the more than 20 information sessions.

If voters approve both questions, homeowners would pay an extra $40 a year in property taxes for each $100,000 of their home’s value. For example, the owner of a $200,000 home would pay an extra $80. If voters only approve the first question, residents would pay $35 for every $100,000 of their homes’ value.

Davis said he is sympathetic with that concern but said the district has to bring the bond before voters because of district needs and, by-and-large, the community recognizes that the district needs these improvements.

“I don’t think anyone’s really concerned about the safety and security aspect of it,” Davis said. “I think the vast majority of people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and how we’re trying to do it.”

In the meantime, district officials have already taken action on security by assigning security officers to day-duty at the 15 elementary school that did not already have a school resource officer.

The new officers are not new staff but have been reassigned from working on second and third shift to working on first shift.

“As far as the culture of the schools, we’ve definitely seen parents and teachers and administrators be very appreciative of having that extra security presence on their campus,” Davis said.

Bond question two is tied to question one. Voters will be able to approve both bond questions together or question one for the $380 million alone. If question one does not pass, question two cannot pass.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Center for Knowledge at E.L. Wright Middle School was housed in portable classrooms. The center is located in older buildings on the campus.

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