By Anna B. Mitchell  

SEPTEMBER 24, 2009 4:00 a.m. Comments (1)

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Sept. 22 meeting

Simpsonville area elementary schools are overloaded with students, and Greenville County Schools have had a plan on the books since January to deal with it.

The district will build a new elementary school in southeast Greenville County – one that will take 1,000 students combined from Bells Crossing, Bethel, Buena Vista, Oakview and Woodland elementary schools.

The district had planned to sell bonds some time in early 2010 for the project, but interest-free federal loans available to the schools now have pushed that project forward.

The school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to sell $15 million in bonds this year and next. The bonds, through a federal tax credit for those who buy them, will cost the school system nothing in interest payments. It’s part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and could save county taxpayers up to $4 million, according to school officials.

The school district, which grew by 250 students coming into this school year, has generally added about 600 students annually in recent years. Superintendent Penny Fisher attributed the district’s growth slowdown to the general downturn in the economy. A report to school board members in January showed that building permits for new houses was down 47 percent in 2008.

“History shows in tough times, people tend to play it safe – they stay in place,” she said.

In other school news:

* Hundreds of kids across the district found they had to start the school year without all their textbooks. A tight budget in Columbia has pressed the state textbook depository to release only as many books as there were known students – meaning kids who move within the district or lose a book will find themselves having to share until the district can order another book.

It’s a sign of the times compounded by new textbook-tracking software at the state level that delayed accounting for all the needed books, said Burke Royster, deputy superintendent for operations. For non-core subjects such as math and English, the school district will also have to buy textbooks for students once the state’s supply runs out.

This means kids taking classes such as agriculture and computer science will see the worst delays in getting books.

“As recently as today, we spent a couple thousand dollars or so on non-core textbooks,” Royster said.

* The school district’s executive director of finance, Jeff Knotts, informed the board that per-student state allocations are down again for Greenville County. The money Greenville can expect from Columbia for each student will be $1,910 this year, down from $2,030. This is a total loss of $8 million for the district – a result of cuts to all state agencies of about 4 percent.

Knotts said the district has been preparing for the expected cuts by saving a percentage of revenues in an escrow account, freezing positions and holding down expenses on things like copies (down to one/half cent per copy after a recent change in vendors).

* In her monthly report to the board, Fisher said the district counted 69,477 students in its schools as of the 15th day of classes. This is 250 more students than last year, with 24 more children in elementary schools, 248 more in middle schools and 22 fewer in high schools. Also, the percentage of children receiving subsidized lunches has grown to 45 percent (up from 43 last year). The district’s 373 buses, 72 of which are more than 20 years old, are carrying 27,000 students to and from school everyday.

* Stone Academy parent and School Improvement Council member Carolyn Henry thanked the board for buying land to expand the elementary school’s playground. Once completed, the kids will have room for the first time to run (currently there is a rule that they cannot) and play organized sports.

* The Salvation Army in Greenville County named Fisher its public servant of the year, and Woodmont High football coach Richard Schrader was named mentor of the year.

The Greenville County School Board will next meet as a Committee of the Whole at 9 a.m. Oct. 13.

Sept. 8 meeting

Almost 27,000 of Greenville County’s public school students ride a bus every day, and schools transportation director Norm Seidel says he wishes it were more.

“Every year 200 to 300 kids are killed in a car riding to school when they could be riding a school bus,” Seidel said.

Seidel was speaking to Greenville County school board members on Tuesday during the group’s monthly committee of the whole meeting. He spoke to a variety of issues for the year – increasing ridership, reducing ride times, expanding routes for students attending magnet schools, expanding driver qualifications, breaking up fights on buses and extending routes to kids who currently have to walk to school.

Some kids spend upwards of an hour and a half on a school bus for drives that take 15 or 20 minutes by car – one way. Spending three hours on a bus reduces family time, time for homework and time for piano lessons or karate, board members said.

“In my personal experience, it’s a 10-hour day for six hours of instruction,” board member Crystal Ball O’Connor said.

Board member Leola Robinson-Simpson said she has seen kids walking along the edge of a busy frontage road to get to Southside High – a road with no sidewalks. Given the choice of staying home or attempting the dangerous walk on a cold, rainy day, she said, many of the students would opt with the former. This, she said, creates an attendance issue.

“Everything everyone is talking about, there are solutions for,” Seidel said. “They all come down to dollars and cents. Do you want to put it in the classroom or on the bus? Ninety-nine percent of it comes down to economics.”

The district has 351 bus drivers driving as many routes and covering 28,000 miles a day. It has 11 buses to cover 800 square miles for the magnet-school programs.

The South Carolina Department of Education owns and operates all of the school buses in the state, a fleet that includes some buses that are 25 years old and hasn’t gained any new buses since state tax receipts plunged in 2008. The department has ruled it is not obligated to pay for buses taking children to magnet programs, an expense Greenville County Schools had not anticipated when magnet programs were developed in the mid-1990s, Superintendent Phinnize Fisher said.

Board member Tommie Reece urged parents of students in magnet programs to complain to state lawmakers, the only elected officials with the fiduciary power to do anything about school transportation issues.

Dr. Ken Peake, assistant superintendent for accountability in Greenville County Schools, said he doesn’t have a good answer for parents whose children are caught between courses after transferring schools mid-year.

Half of Greenville County’s 14 high schools have seven class periods while the other half are on a block schedule (longer and fewer classes each semester). If students transfer between schools of opposite-type scheduling, they risk not graduating.

“Nobody benefits from a student not getting what they need to graduate,” Peake said. Reece said the school district could do a better job of educating parents on potential scheduling nightmares before they opt to move their families.

Deputy Superintendent for Operations Burke Royster went over the district’s $2 million plan to increase energy efficiency at six schools over the next nine months – an annual savings of about $340,000.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is paying for the improvements, which will pay for themselves in less than six years (including a nearly $500,000 loan).

Lighting and heating-and-air systems are the chief focus of improvements at Hillcrest, Wade Hampton, Mauldin and Greenville high schools and Heritage and Bethel elementary schools.

Construction of A.J. Whittenburg Elementary is still on target to have the school ready for students by August 2010, Fisher said.

The downtown school several years in the making will share a campus with the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center off Academy Street.

Fisher said the school has a principal who will be starting in January and 310 students scheduled to attend. She said she would know more about facilities that will be available to kids at the Kroc Center when she meets with Salvation Army officials this month.


Aug. 25 meeting

After 10 years of looking for property and two years of negotiating on two lots off Croft Street, Stone Academy has room to grow.

The Greenville County school board voted unanimously Tuesday night at its regular monthly meeting to purchase two lots totaling three-quarters of an acre – land the school intends to use to build a playground and running track for its older students. The land was appraised for $695,000 in February 2008, 20 years after the current owners paid $184,000 for it. The board agreed to pay $800,000.

The current owners of both lots are D&D Inc. and D/B/A Children Under Construction – a daycare operation. The two historic homes at 106 and 108 Croft St. have been renovated for daycare use. They will be sold and relocated or demolished if no one wants them, said Bryan Morris, the district’s executive director of construction.

Board member Lynda Leventis-Wells said she knew how difficult it was to find property for the landlocked school in the established North Main neighborhood.

“We are focusing on an area where children can run and play and vent all their excitement between classes and so forth,” Leventis-Wells said.

Board member Dana Edwards said she’d like staff to keep looking for contiguous land in the area to purchase for the school.

In other school board news:

• Superintendent Penny Fisher praised the work of educators and staff in preparing for the first day of school Aug. 19. Despite traffic snarls on day one, she said, everyone was in their classes and focused on academics. “Our teachers took advantage of good attitudes to get started moving students forward,” she said.

• Visitor Stephen Delsol, a former educator who said he’d taught in the Caribbean and Great Britain, admonished school officials for letting a disproportionate number of black students get referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice in cases of school disruptions. Although black students make up about a quarter of the school population in Greenville County, he said, just over half of the system’s Juvenile Justice cases involve black students.

• Ten new members of the school system’s administration were introduced, including Grove Elementary Principal Deborah Bauer and Berea Elementary Principal Kenneth George.

• The school board agreed to a city-required covenant that the Greenview Child Development Center be annexed into the city should the city’s boundaries extend to its property lines. Customers of the Greenville Water System are required to sign such an agreement.

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