Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) – Lexington School District One responded to the community’s outrage regarding a land purchase they recently made in Pelion from a former employee and school board member. They bought the land from Jean Haggard, who had served on the board of trustees in the past and retired as the principal of Pelion High School after decades of dedicated service to education in the area. Most of the outrage makes it appear as if some in the community are in total shock of the price. That price $982,980.00, is roughly 7 times Lexington County’s appraised value for it. That's actually more than Lexington County paid per acre for their industrial park in Cayce.
In an e-mailed response to a request for comment from The Lexington Ledger and others received Sunday night, Lexington School District One’s Chief Communications Officer Mary Beth Hill, responded for the district. In that response, Hill detailed just how difficult it is to find the perfect spot to build a school in SC.
Hill pointed out that the purchase of property for a school site is a very specialized and intricate process. There are many South Carolina Department of Education, South Carolina Department of Transportation and Lexington County guidelines that impact the purchase of land for a school site.
First, location of the land is a prime consideration; Is the site where the District needs it to be now and in the future? Also, there are state regulation on site size for the various grades of schools. Hill pointed out that site sizes run roughly 20-30 acres for an elementary school, 30-50 acres for a middle school and 75+ for a high school, depending on the number of students slated to be served by that school.
There are also traffic impact studies that need to be done. A property needs to be approved by the South Carolina Department of Transportation in terms of available road frontage, the depth of the property, and the ability to provide necessary traffic circulation on site for the stacking or lining up of automobiles during peak student drop-off and pick-up times. Lexington School District Two recently had a site turned down near Pine Ridge because of traffic problems.
Hill said the Pelion property is ideally suited for a new middle school. It is directly across Main Street (US Hwy 178) from the high school, allowing students to share educational and extracurricular opportunities, as well as to maneuver back and forth between the middle school and high school for those opportunities. Currently, students do make this walk regularly for after school activities like band and sports. They walk from either school, cross Mulberry Street, and that puts them at their destination for whatever activity they are participating in.
Building schools also takes utilities like water, sewer, and in this day and time things like high-speed internet service. A major part of the construction of the new sewer line to Pelion was to get three schools connected to sewer and off an outdated aerated pond owned by the District at PES. The water has been there for years and having the sewer close by will be a must. Electricity is certainly not an issue, there’s plenty of that, and Comporium has some of the fastest internet available already in Pelion. In speaking for the District, Hill said in her statement, “The Pelion property is a perfect site with all major utilities readily available or on their way to this location. If the utilities were not readily available, this could significantly impact the overall cost for site development per acre. Thankfully, this site will minimize any utility development costs.”
She also pointed out the minimal site work that would need to be done in Pelion. It’s dry, sandy soil that’s flat and covered with some brush and scrub-oak trees. There are also no wetlands on the property. Wetlands aren’t necessarily rivers or ponds, they can be springs, little creeks, or even areas that are wet only with significant rain events.
Hill did not point out that the property also adjoins a large site where the Lexington County Recreation and Aging Commission has ball fields, a senior citizen’s center, and the county’s library. Certainly, the fact that students could walk to those properties after school might be a plus.
In her final remarks on the attributes of the Pelion site Hill said, “The Pelion property is a rare piece of property that matches all of these needs and guidelines exceptionally well. While we know that some people in the community feel that the initial per acre cost was higher than anticipated, we know that the property is a bargain when you consider all factors of site development.” She also said regarding the land, “Because it not only meets but exceeds our expectations for a site, it will keep the cost per acre low throughout the development and construction process. Just because the cost of land is cheaper up front does not mean that the final cost per acre will remain cheaper if the site requires excessive site development.”
Hill said later in her statement that who owned the property made no difference when they consider a site. The fact that the property’s owner was a former employee and board member was not a part of the decision at all, according to Hill. In her same Sunday night statement she said, “That is ridiculous.” She pointed out that with more than 4,000 employees, Lexington County School District One is the second largest employer in Lexington County. She said it would be very difficult for the district to purchase land or to do business for that matter, if the district had to exclude all landowners or businessmen with either past or current relationships of some kind to the district or its employees. It might be noted here that in Pelion, several families own a large majority of the property that’s still available, one of whom is also a past board member, and they have been buying as of late, not selling.
In response to a question from Jada Garris, a candidate for an open board seat and former bus driver for the school, board chair Debbie Knight said that the community did have input into the site and all the board members had been on it. In her e-mail to Garris Knight she said, “Other properties in Pelion were considered. Presentation of the plans for the school were shared with SIC (School Improvement Council) at a community meeting. There were many community stakeholders involved in the discussion of this location. This location was considered the best to fit the needs of our students and this was the recommendation brought to the board for consideration. All board members visited the site at different times when in the Pelion area for school events.”
The e-mail from Knight’s personal G-Mail account written in response to Garris, was carbon-copied to much of the district’s key administrative staff other board members That election is set for Tuesday, June 19th.