A year after voters allowed the Richland 2 school district to borrow $467 million, it is still too early to say whether the taxpayer investment is paying off.
That’s because so far most of the money has been set aside, but major projects haven’t broken ground yet. Two thirds of the $467 million have been assigned either an architect, a contractor or both and only $1.3 million has been spent, district documents show.
Starting in early 2020, the district will start construction on its first major projects, documents show.
“There hasn’t been much dirt-moving these first few months, but there is about to be a lot of dirt-moving,” said Will Anderson, who oversees the bond projects for Richland 2.
In order to approve the larger projects, the district needs to choose an architect and contractor, draft and sign a contract with them. Then, the architect needs to survey the site, obtain permits and draw a building design before construction can begin, said Richland 2 board chair James Manning.
While the district seeks approval and solicits competitive bids for larger projects, officials have tried to move forward with urgent and relatively inexpensive upgrades to school safety.
Upgrades to secure 15 school lobbies, which cost a combined total of $1.3 million, are 75 percent complete, documents show.
Now, “you can’t just walk into a school,” Manning said of all district schools. “You have to walk into a secure place and (then) beyond the principal’s office.”
Some of the newer schools already had this upgrade, but the older schools did not, Manning said.
However, one key safety upgrade has hit a snag. A contractor was supposed to have installed bullet-resistant glass in school lobbies by mid-August, but now that has been delayed until December.
Richland 2 officials say the delay is the fault of the contractor, Smith Constructors & Engineers, for not ordering the bullet-resistant glass in time. Unlike windows sold at a hardware store, bullet-resistant windows are custom-made and cost between $200 and $300 per square foot to buy and install, said Will Anderson, who heads bond projects for the district.
“They agreed to it knowing what’s in the specs of the work,” Anderson said.
In the last week of October, Richland 2 fired Smith Constructors & Engineers because of the project delays and is searching for another contractor to finish the job, Anderson said.
Smith Constructors & Engineers could not be reached for comment.
The district chose to get bullet-resistant glass because when a gunman killed 20 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the shooter circumvented the school’s security system by shooting through the glass, Anderson said.
In the meantime, schools installed a protective film on the windows that would be less effective, but better than not having it at all, Anderson said.
“It’s to do whatever we can to slow them down,” Anderson said.
Board member Amelia McKie said she is satisfied with the school district’s process on bond projects.
“I’m one-hundred percent confident everything has been done,” McKie said.
Stephen Gilchrist, founder of the Richland 2 Black Parents’ Association, said it’s too early to tell.
“I think the jury is still out on this bond,” Gilchrist said. The Richland 2 Black Parents’ Association did not support the bond referendum because taxes were already high, Gilchrist said.
It’s important the school district makes good use of the bond money it has, because there is little appetite in Richland 2 to increase taxes, Gilchrist said.
“Taxes are already extraordinarily high in Richland northeast. I don’t think the community can support another tax increase,” Gilchrist said.
“They’re going to have to get this right,” Gilchrist said.
The district’s main way of communicating project progress has been through a website that tracks the progress of each project, the contractors and architects assigned, the cost of the project and a general description of each project.
School administration, not the elected board, is largely responsible for overseeing the bond projects, said board member James Shadd.
While the school board receives updates on the progress, cost and other details of the bond projects, “In terms of execution, that’s for the administration to handle,” Shadd said.
In the first three months of 2020, Richland 2 expects to break ground on four projects, according to district documents.
The largest of those four projects will be a $28.4 million addition to Blythewood High School. That addition, scheduled to break ground in February 2020, will include safety improvements in the front lobby (including the bullet resistant-glass), adding an “academic house,” adding dining space, athletic field improvements, expanding the fine arts area and more, according to Richland 2’s website.
The second-costliest of the four projects will be building a new facility for the Center for Knowledge North, which will cost $9.8 million, according to district documents.
Not all of the construction will be visible from the outside. In at least 17 schools, traditional classroom buildings will be transformed into “flexible” spaces where students can work on collaborative projects.
“It’s really more about designing our schools for the profile of the South Carolina graduate and what businesses are looking for,” Anderson said.
More specifically, that means making sure graduates have “soft skills” such as communication and collaboration, Anderson said.
“Right now, this takes place in the hallway,” Anderson said.
However, in a school district that has grown by 19 percent in the last decade, the open spaces can be converted to classrooms should future enrollment growth require the need for more classrooms, Anderson said.
The district’s costliest projects are still yet to come.
The costliest project is rebuilding E.L. Wright Middle School, which is expected to start in 2021 and will cost the district an estimated $58.5 million, according to the district’s website.
Richland 2 will be paying off this debt for the next 15-20 years, according to the district’s website.
When the district was pitching the bond referendum, the district projected it would increase taxes for the average taxpayer by $6 per month, or $72 per year, once all $467 million were borrowed.
The last time Richland 2 held a bond referendum was in 2008, when it sought $306 million. In 2004, the district sought $175.5 million in a referendum, and in 2000, the district sought $98.3 million in a referendum, according to the district’s website. The district will be paying off that debt until 2033, according to the district’s website.