Lexington-Richland 5 spent $1.2M on a school it promised voters but never built

A street sign on the corner of Derrick Pond Road and Mount Vernon Church Road in Chapin. Almost a decade ago, Lexington-Richland 5 purchased land on Derrick Pond Road for a new elementary school. The school was never built.
A street sign on the corner of Derrick Pond Road and Mount Vernon Church Road in Chapin. Almost a decade ago, Lexington-Richland 5 purchased land on Derrick Pond Road for a new elementary school. The school was never built.

In 2008, overcrowding in Chapin-area elementary schools prompted the Lexington-Richland 5 school district to spend more than $600,000 to buy 47 acres of land on Derrick Pond Road for a new school.

Today, those same schools are so overcrowded that the district froze enrollment at two of them indefinitely, yet the Derrick Pond Road land sits vacant, even after the district spent hundreds of thousands more to design the school.

What’s more, the district is now moving forward with plans to build an elementary school on a piece of land half the size and 8 miles away in order to alleviate the overcrowding.

District officials acknowledge they may never build a school at Derrick Pond Road, because the land purchased almost a decade ago doesn’t have access to a major road. So why did the district buy the land, and could it have been brought up to standards? And what can be done with it now?

Securing the land

In 2008, voters in the Lexington-Richland 5 school district approved a plan to renovate and upgrade seven schools and to build four new ones, including the Chapin-area elementary school. The $243.7 million plan, which included $28 million for the 750-student Chapin school, was much larger than a $131 million plan voters rejected two years earlier.

Before the 2008 referendum, school board member Ed White warned in a letter to The State about the consequences of voters rejecting the plan.

“There is nothing that will waste more of your tax dollars than delaying the construction of schools that we need to build today. How much more can we afford to waste?” he wrote.

After the 2008 referendum, district officials hired Colliers International to search for a site for the Chapin school. The company found 47.42 acres for sale at the Y-shaped intersection of Mount Vernon Church Road and Derrick Pond Road. The land was listed by Grubb & Ellis for $830,000.

The Derrick Pond Road site is just south of Interstate 26, near the White Rock area, in about the center of the district, which spans parts of Lexington and Richland counties. The property sits on a narrow gravel road that is tucked between a wall of trees and the wide lawn of a neighboring home.

In April 2010, the school board voted to buy the property for $592,750 from Brenda Graham Crooks and her brother, University of South Carolina professor Cole Blease Graham Jr.

Before closing on the land, the district had 150 days for “due diligence” — boundary surveys, title work, environmental and traffic studies and other work to ensure the site was suitable for a school.

In August of that year, the state Department of Education’s Office of School Facilities gave initial approval to the site. But in an Aug. 27, 2010, letter to then-superintendent Herbert Berg, the office recommended that architects and engineers work closely with the state Department of Transportation and that final building plans “be conditioned upon” a traffic impact study required by Richland County.

“We would like to remind you that prior to purchasing a specific site you may want to be certain of the extent and cost of required road improvements,” John Kent, the school facilities office’s interim director, wrote. “Road improvements can add substantially to the overall site improvement costs.”

Photo illustration of the property Lexington-Richland 5 purchased between 2010 and 2011 on Derrick Pond Road, shown via Google Maps. The district had planned to use the site to build a new elementary school to alleviate overcrowding in the Chapin area, but the school was never built. Isabella Cueto

In December 2010, the Richland County Development Review Team denied the district’s plans because the property did not have primary access from a major road. Richland County law dictates schools cannot be on a local dirt road, like Derrick Pond Road.

Pendleton Grove, a realtor from Colliers International who found the Derrick Pond Road land, said he did not want to comment.

Geonard Price, zoning administrator for Richland County, said special development codes went into effect in 2005, and have been publicly available since they were adopted.

“The requirements are there,” said Price, who was on the review team when the school district sought approval for the Derrick Pond Road plans. “The design professional should be basing their decision on the code.”

He said he spoke with officials from Lexington-Richland 5 when the plans were denied about “ways to try to fix this.”

But White, the school board member, said the plans were denied because of outside interference. Specifically, White said a Richland County Council member — though he did not specify who — had expressed his opposition to the construction plans. Board member Jan Hammond said she was told council member Bill Malinowski had spoken to superintendent Stephen Hefner, and vowed to do everything he could to stop progress on the school.

Malinowski said in an email to The State that he never opposed the Lexington-Richland 5 building plan, nor did he speak to Hefner about the projects. Malinowski also denied that he had obstructed the DRT’s process.

“I have never had any input in any of the items that go before that team,” Malinowski said. “I don’t attend those meetings and can’t tell you which staff members make up that team, how many are on the team or when they meet.”

He said the plans were denied because the school district did not thoroughly vet the site before proceeding, and it is trying to shift blame to avoid acknowledging its missteps.

“They are looking for a scapegoat to cover for their own ineptness and lack of due diligence prior to purchasing the property,” Malinowski said. “Responsibility lies with those who authorized purchase of the property without knowing the Richland County ordinances for development.”

Hefner could not be reached for comment.

District 5 spokesperson Katrina Goggins said in a statement that road frontage issues were apparently identified before the county review team rejected the site plan. The district tried to swap land with a nearby property owner, a deal that would have provided access to Mount Vernon Church Road, but the deal fell through.

School officials had brokered a contract with Earline and Hoyt Derrick, who own property across the street from the Derrick Pond Road site, according to documents obtained by The State. The contract was signed in August 2010.

As part of the deal, the Derricks would receive a 0.31-acre piece of the land the district had just purchased in exchange for a 0.08-acre piece of their land that was on Mount Vernon Church Road.

But a month later, the Derricks’ son, James Upchurch, called Hefner and told him not to contact his parents again, according to attorney Mike Montgomery, who was hired by the board in December 2018 to review the Derrick Pond Road project. Upchurch then sent a letter saying the Derricks would “withdraw the offer,” according to Montgomery, who discussed his review with the school board in January. He declined to be interviewed by The State because of attorney-client privilege.

Photo illustration of the contract between Lexington-Richland 5 and Earline and Hoyt Derrick, owners of a property adjacent to a school site on Derrick Pond Road. The agreement was signed in Aug. 2010, but the Derricks later said they were forced into signing and threatened with condemnation, so they would “withdraw” from the deal. Isabella Cueto

Documents also show the district twice pursued land deals with the Derricks but both efforts failed, with the couple saying they felt “bullied by the district.”

In March 2011, after the second round of talks, Earline Derrick also spoke during the public comment portion of a school board meeting. She reiterated that she did not want her property involved in the Derrick Pond Road school project.

The Derricks and Upchurch could not be reached for comment.

The district never took legal action to enforce the 2010 document the Derricks signed, according to Montgomery.

White made a motion in April 2011 to seat a committee to investigate why the deal fell through, which the board approved, but records reviewed by Montgomery show the committee was never appointed.

Goggins, the Lexington-Richland 5 spokesperson, responded to a list of questions about the matter via email.

The school district initially appealed the county review team’s denial of the site to the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

Goggins said the district had “several options” to appeal and had “at least three options to conform to staff’s interpretation” of the law. But in May 2011, the district withdrew its appeal.

Goggins did not explain why the district did not follow through with appeal options.

Price, the zoning administrator, said an appeal would have almost certainly been denied because the Board of Zoning Appeals cannot vary from what is spelled out in the code.

Designing the school

While district officials were trying to work out the road access problem, it continued preparations to build the school.

In March 2010, the district sought cost estimates for making road improvements around the school site, according to documents. Mount Vernon Church Road had to be widened at U.S. 76 and at Derrick Pond Road, which also needed general upgrades, pavement and engineering. Altogether, the improvements would have cost an estimated $300,000, according to a report by Chao and Associates that was provided to The State. The improvements were never made.

In a public meeting later that month, district director of new design and construction Keith McAlister told the board “civil drawings are 85 percent complete pending DRT review.” He also said the project completion date was 2012 and the total budget for the school was $25.8 million.

McAlister, who oversaw all of the district’s construction projects and recommended the purchase of the Derrick Pond Road site, did not respond to multiple phone calls and voicemails. He retired from the school district in 2015.

Meanwhile, a network of contractors worked on the project for almost three years starting in 2009, records show. The district spent at least $550,000 on design and construction plans, according to documents reviewed by The State, and at least $70,384 on inspections, technology and professional services.

Records show architects and engineers took the design of Lexington-Richland 5’s Oak Pointe Elementary and adapted it, a construction strategy used to minimize costs and speed up projects.

At an October 2010 meeting, district officials, architects and engineers debated details such as the number and location of parking spaces, the kind of crosswalk to be used in front of the school and where drinking fountains should be stationed, records show.

Photo illustration of architectural renderings by CJMW of an elementary school for Derrick Pond Road. The project was ultimately canceled because the site did not have the road access required by law for schools. Isabella Cueto

Lead architect Larry Wilund told The State drawings were completed and submitted to the school district, but the district never moved on to the next step: Advertising the project for bid. Wilund was managing partner of Calloway, Johnson, Moore and West, or CJMW, at the time.

“I can’t think of another school project we did where we got paid to do all the drawings and then they shelved it, so that is unusual,” he said.

Shifting priorities

District officials say Hefner made the call to move on from the project entirely.

“In 2011, the superintendent reviewed the district’s revised growth projections, needs and building priorities and recommended that funds from the referendum be redirected to significant additional improvements at Irmo High School and Dutch Fork High School,” Goggins said.

Records show the district took $27 million from the Derrick Pond Road project and reallocated it to other projects:

  • $5.6 million to Irmo High School
  • $5.6 million to Dutch Fork High School
  • $3 million to the new high school
  • $12.8 million to Chapin High School

Even so, in public meetings throughout 2012, Hefner presented updates to his list of goals for the district — “Vision 2015,” he called it — and included the bond-funded new elementary school in them. And in his January 2013 update to the board, Hefner listed a new elementary school as part of “remaining facility needs.”

Photo illustration of an elevation view of architectural renderings for an elementary school. The designs were made for a school that had been planned for Derrick Pond Road in Chapin. Isabella Cueto

Demographers had recorded a spike in enrollment and growth in the Chapin area as early as 2003, White wrote in his letter to The State, and the district based its goals on that promise.

Berg, who was superintendent when the bond referendum was up for vote and at the start of the Derrick Pond Road project, said in a phone interview that he could not remember details about the project or why the district called it off. He retired at the end of 2010.

However, he said the new elementary school was “down” on the district’s to-do list. Among the items higher on the list were improvements to Irmo and Chapin high schools, a new elementary school in the Irmo area, remodeling Leaphart Elementary School, and building a stadium and sports complex at Dutch Fork High School.

The site Lexington-Richland 5 bought at Derrick Pond Road sits vacant in Feb. 2019. A decade ago, the school district undertook one of the projects voters approved in a bond referendum: an elementary school to alleviate overcrowding in Chapin. After a few years and unresolved road access problems, the district reallocated funds to other projects and the school was never built. Isabella Cueto

Looking to Amicks Ferry Road

Hammond, the board member, said district officials should have explored every option for building the school voters supported, and especially before moving on to another, more expensive piece of land — 24 acres on Amicks Ferry Road that cost the district $932,950.

“I find it difficult to understand why, with sharp legal minds, we could not have found another way to build on it,” she said.

For now, though, the district has not announced any specific plans for the land.

“While the district did not immediately place a school at the Derrick Pond site after purchasing it, the district is well within its own policy in having the Derrick Pond property for later use,” Goggins said.

Montgomery said the school district could look into using the land for another district facility, or apply to rezone the site so as to avoid the special road access requirements. The district could also attempt to acquire the additional land it needs for road access, he said, or reapply for approval from the county review team.

White, similarly, said the land is “inventory” and, as Montgomery suggested to the board during his presentation, the site could be sold for more than it was purchased for.

“Any alleged money wasted on the Derrick Pond Road project is immaterial to the greater good being served by building schools in district 5,” White wrote in an email to The State. “When we re-sell the Derrick Pond site, the property will be sold at a considerable profit that can more than make up for any alleged wasted dollars.”

Meanwhile, some residents near the district’s new site on Amicks Ferry Road continue to oppose placing an elementary school there. Their concerns include the school property being too expensive and not safe enough for students because of its location on a main road, as well as an increase in school-related traffic.

White said the Amicks Ferry Road school will be a better option to meet student needs in Chapin.

“In reality, the Derrick Pond school project did not fail. That school is now being built on Amicks Ferry Road, which our past superintendent concluded was, in fact, a much better site given current population trends,” White said.

Hefner and other district officials have said data shows population growth and development moving toward the area near Amicks Ferry Road.

Still, others are concerned about the money spent on Derrick Pond Road.

Hammond, who is a teacher in Lexington 2, said money spent on inventory land could be used instead to benefit teachers.

“I don’t have the money in the classroom for teachers for them to just go and bank land,” she said.

According to records, Lexington-Richland 5 spent at least $1.2 million on land, architectural plans and other expenses for the school at Derrick Pond Road. Now, the district has budgeted another $30 million for the school at Amicks Ferry Road.

If all goes as planned, the new school will open its doors to 750 students in August 2021.

Correction, Feb. 25, 2019: Board member Ed White made a motion in April 2011 to seat a committee to investigate why the Derricks allegedly pulled out of their agreement with the district. An earlier version of this article said a different board member made the motion.

Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.