Pelion, SC (Paul Kirby) – Monday night’s School Improvement Council at Pelion Middle School turned into a major venting session for a number of angry parents. Most were livid about what they described as “terrible” conditions that were affecting their children and grandchildren’s health and well-being at the facility.
The meeting was held in the new Pelion Performing Arts Center, the latest, state-of-the-art addition to PMS,that was constructed about 4 years ago. It is just the latest addition to the complex that has been added to and renovated multiple times since the original school was erected in the early 1950’s. At one time, the school served all students in the Pelion attendance area.
Parents said after the SIC session that it was ironic that the meeting gathered in the PPAC, and not in the portions of the building that has had brown water coming out of many of the faucets. They also said that there’s mold and mildew growing on the walls in some areas of the school.
Recently, pictures of the brown water posted to social media several weeks ago went viral; a process that the parents said finally pushed District One into taking action to make some positive changes.
The meeting was chaired for the most part by Jeff Salters, Chief of Operations Officer for the district. Dr. Greg Little, the superintendent of District One, was also in attendance, as was Jeff Matthews, PMS’s popular principal.
In what appeared to be anticipation of the discontent, Salters started with a PowerPoint presentation that detailed the amount of monies that the district has spent in the Pelion attendance area over the past 10 years. Those investments, along with ones that are currently underway or are expected to start soon, total approximately 21.5 million dollars.
For the most part, these funds were allocated at Pelion High, Pelion Middle, and Pelion Elementary. Forts Pond Elementary, one of the newest schools in the Pelion attendance area, was excluded from the figures because it is newer and has less of a need for ongoing renovations.
Pelion High School is also relatively new, and most of the work done there over the last 10 years has to do with extracurricular activities. These include improvements at the baseball and softball complexes and a replacement of the band’s practice field tower, a project that is happening with band areas district wide.
This seemed to bother some of those in attendance as much as any other of the details regarding the meeting. One parent pointed out that they were glad that the sports and fine arts program’s facilities were being upgraded, but they were most concerned with ongoing problems with PMS facilities. They say those problems put their children’s health and well-being at risk every day and nothing seemed to be getting done.
Salters addressed several pointed questions about photos of a sports bottle of brown water that had come from a faucet at PMS. This picture had been widely circulated on social media over the past few weeks. Salters said that this problem had been taken care of.
He said that an old ductile iron pipe that fed drinking water to the building, a type of pipe that was commonly used many years ago to carry potable water, had been located. It was rusting and in poor condition. This pipe’s condition was causing the water to be brown. Salters said that the district recently re-routed the building’s main water feed from another utility line through a new, improved PVC water line that eliminated the nasty, brown water.
One of the angry parents in attendance who said that her children, now in their mid-twenties, had attended PMS years ago, complained that the water was brown when they attended PMS. She asked why something hadn’t been done to fix the problem sooner.
Parents said that Pelion area schools, as a whole, are being constantly overlooked, and their problems are being put on the back burner by the district. Several said that this was because the area is home to blue collar, or working class people. One woman who identified herself as a mother of a student said, “We are treated poorly and ignored because we are a sub-economic group, and we are always treated that way!”
Another major issue that parents said caused health and safety concerns was mold and mildew in many of the classrooms. Some dehumidifiers have been added to several spaces by the district. Parents said that the mold was directly related to respiratory health problems of their children.
The issue of broken floor tiles in several of the bathrooms came up time and again. Parents said that some of the restrooms also had faucets that didn’t work so that children couldn't wash their hands after using the restroom.
Salters said that some of the faucet issues were as a direct result of discipline issues with students. They had used the older style faucets to spray water all over the bathroom walls causing maintenance personnel to cut those faucets off. Now, the faucets are being replaced with a new style that will prevent this type of vandalism.
Another major issue of complaint was toilets and other bathroom fixtures in restrooms. Many were made for, and set to the height needed for children of kindergarten and elementary school ages and size. These had never been replaced with standard fixtures for older children.
The older fixtures were left in place after the school became exclusively a middle school and no longer had students of the younger age and smaller size. Parents said these were simply unusable or unsanitary for students in middle school, some of who are quickly approaching, or have passed 6’ tall.
Salters did his best to answer the questions the parents had asked and said he had personally walked through and inspected all PMS facilities in the days prior to the Monday meeting. He said the issues that weren’t already fixed were in the process of being addressed immediately.
At this point, Lonnie Keisler, a PMS parent and successful local businessman, said it just wasn’t right that it had taken so long, and so many complaints, before Salters and the district had addressed the concerns. “When the pictures of the nasty brown water hit the internet, and so many parents complained and said they were coming to have their say at this meeting, the next day the school was swarming with maintenance staff and contractors fixing and repairing these things,” Keisler said. “What we want to know is why it took that to make some of this happen,” he continued.
Jeff Matthews, the school’s principal, did speak during the meeting and pointed out that he and his staff had worked hard to improve the academics programs at PMS since he took the helm 3 years ago. Matthews said that when he took over, Dr. Woodward, then the superintendent of the district, said that the district’s leadership wanted the school, that had a history of poor academic performance, turned around.
In order to achieve those goals, Matthews first retrained the staff to meet new standards and goals. He also worked diligently with the district to reequip the school with furniture, teaching aids, and other tangible items that were in a poor state of repair and often unusable. Since those things have been done, Matthews said, “We are now successfully educating our kids.” Improved test scores from the school and a reduction in discipline and other negative issues backs up Matthews claims that the school has improved in many areas.
Matthews did say that some portions of the school had been re-purposed because they weren’t suitable for children to use regularly. One room that the parents questioned regarding air quality has now been changed to a storage room because of issue with it.
Although none of the attendees at the meeting argued that the school’s programs hadn’t improved, they said that wasn’t the issue. “Our school is falling down,” one woman shouted!
Others continually pointed out that other district schools like River Bluff High and the Meadow Glen schools were simply over the top and opulent! In referring to River Bluff, a school some people across the district have often referred to as the Taj Mahal, one woman said, “Look at the skylights, look at the tilework, the excesses; it’s ridiculous!”
It is important to note here that the district’s leadership, including the superintendent and a number of board members, have changed since River Bluff and the Meadow Glenn schools were constructed. Several new board members have been sworn in this winter.
Representative Mac Toole of House District 88 was in attendance at the meeting. He asked several times why it seemed as if the Pelion area school get so little attention. When Salters pointed out that funding was a constant issue, Toole said that the legislature had built in an 8% funding option to a bill that specifically dealt with school needs. He said that 8% was specifically available to address pressing needs like the ones at PMS being discussed.
At one point during the meeting, Toole asked Salters regarding the health issues like the water and the mold and mildew, “Do these normal maintenance issues not rank high enough to be taken care of immediately?”Salters answered that the schools were regularly inspected and immediate needs were addressed by the maintenance staff at the school and district level.
Several times during the meeting, Salters pointed out that the growth in the center of the county had forced those areas to be dealt with first. It was simply a matter of numbers. The district is growing by a rate of almost 500 students per year; a number that forces them to consider building a new school a year just to keep up. “With money, I can do anything,” Salters told the audience. “It simply comes down to having enough money to do what we need to do everywhere we need to do it.”
Salters and Dr. Little both talked about another bond referendum that they feel will be presented to the district’s voters in 2018. If that borrowing authorization passes, Pelion Middle will be one of the schools at the top of the list for a major tear down and renovation process. This would have to be done in phases so the school could still be used during the process.
The crowd in attendance was reminded that a bond referendum’s passing is not a sure thing. These are an authorization by the people of the area to borrow money to build, and often cause an increase in property taxes. Some of that increase can be controlled as old bond debt is retired.
If the bond issue passes, much of the older, front portion of PMS would be torn down and replaced according to Salters. These are the areas of the school where most of the complaints regarding the facilities come from.
Some key upgrades are going on in those areas of the building right now, they are expected to be completed before the end of the 2017 school year. Salters pointed out that it would be pointless to spend big money on something they hope to tear down in the next few years. “In 2 or 3 years, we hope to demolish this,” Salters told the crowd. “How much do you want us to invest in something we plan to tear down?” he asked.
Salters said during the meeting that the safety, health, and well being of their students at District One was their top priority. He said if health concerns at any district school was brought to their attention, they would do everything within their power to facilitate the necessary changes to alleviate those issues immediately.
The parents in attendance said they are waiting to see if the changes really have or will be done. One mother said her son has sinus problems she attributed to the mold in the building, According to that mother, her child has missed more than 20 school days this school year and has needed corrective surgery. She's run out of patience and is ready to see improvements now!
At the close of the meeting, parents said that they planned to keep the heat on the administration to ensure that the Pelion schools were treated with the respect and attention they deserved. They didn’t want to create a problem at other schools across the district, they just wanted their children to be treated with care and respect.
Parents said they plan to do this through social media, through active participation in meetings like the one held Monday, and by highlighting the issues with the area’s media like The Lexington Ledger.
Dr. Little implored the parents to remain active. “The way that you can help is to stay involved in the process,” Little told the crowd.
A note regarding media and its participation in the event; a reporter from Columbia’s CBS affiliate WLTX was at the meeting, but was not allowed inside the building. She said she was told by district officials that it was not a public meeting, and therefore the media wasn’t allowed to cover the actual meeting. She did set up outside and interviewed some of the parents as they left.
WLTX consulted their attorney, Jay Bender, who said that the exclusion of the media and WLTX was illegal. The management of the stations has threatened to take further action regarding their exclusion.
The Lexington Ledger's editor was allowed in the meeting. District officials said that exception was made because he has children and grandchildren that attend the school.
We will continue to update this story as progress is made in upgrading the facilities at PMS. We also plan follow up stories about key improvements the district says they have in the works for the future.