Mercury, asbestos, and leaks: How a bond referendum plans to fix Beaufort County schools


BEAUFORT, S.C. (WSAV) — Overcrowding, leaking, and even asbestos are just a few of the issues that plague schools in Beaufort County.

But the Citizens for Better Schools Now! Organization is trying to ensure these problems are resolved for students and faculty soon. 

“Our children have been there since 2004 and there has been a lot of infrastructure issues and there has been a lot of classroom instruction time missed because of floods and leaks,” referendum committee member and mother of eight, Michelle Morgan said.

Residents in Beaufort County will vote on a bond referendum on Nov. 5 that will determine whether or not schools in the district will get necessary upgrades.

“All of these other school districts have passed major, major bond renovations in recent years and we have not done so in Beaufort County,” Member of Citizens for Better Schools Now Jodie Strutek said. “We’re losing the ability to maintain our facilities and provide adequate learning environments for our students.”

Robert Smalls International Academy is one of the schools with critical needs in the district and would be a prime beneficiary should the bond be passed.

It wouldn’t be simply a matter of renovating classrooms at Robert Smalls. The current building would be demolished, and a new school would be built.

“You can only hide leaks, you can only hide poor ball fields, you can only hide hot or coldness by pretty paint and pretty artwork, but kids know,” Robert Smalls International Academy Principal Jennifer Morillo said.

Principal Morillo says there are more than 40 leaks in the building when there is a rainstorm — not to mention mercury in the gym floor, asbestos in the ceiling, and lack of storage room. So much so that administrators are hiding servers in the bathrooms. 

Beaufort County voters rejected the bond referendums in 2016 and 2018.

Since that time, the school district’s total enrollment has increased by more than 3,000 students.

Normally, counties pass them every four to five years. The last bond referendum was passed eleven years ago. 

Some residents say they voted “no” on the previous referendums because they didn’t trust that the funds were going to be allocated correctly by the administration, or they didn’t have children in the school system.

Morillo argues with new members in the administration comes new certainty that Robert Smalls would have a successful rebuild.

“When you look at our track record, we have one of the highest credit ratings of any school district in the state,” Strutek said. “That rhetoric doesn’t line up with reality.”

Strutek says even if residents don’t have children in the school district, voting “yes” on the 2019 referendum is necessary.

“Education funding is vital for everyone in the community,” Strutek said. “It benefits you even if you’re retired and you don’t have kids or you’re a young person and you don’t have children in the school district. With better education comes a better economy.”

Residents in Beaufort County would pay about 9 dollars a month if this referendum passes.

“When you see this building and the disrepair it’s in, it’s really unfair,” Strutek said. 

Here’s a breakdown of what Beaufort residents will be voting on for each of the questions on the November 5 ballot:

Question 1: $290,555,000 to:

-Acquire, install and construct school safety and security improvements district-wide.

-Acquire, install and construct technology infrastructure and related equipment district-wide.

-Construct and equip a replacement school for Robert Smalls International Academy (includes demolishing the existing facility).

-Construct and equip additions at May River High and River Ridge Academy.

-Construct and equip renovations at Beaufort Elementary.

-Construct and equip renovations and additions at Battery Creek High and Hilton Head Island Middle, including demolition where necessary.

Question 2: $54,055,000 to:

-Construct, renovate, expand and equip space for Career and Technology Education programs at Battery Creek High and May River High.

-Design renovations for Hilton Head High.

-Construct and equip athletic improvements at Beaufort Middle, Whale Branch Middle, River -Ridge Academy, Bluffton Middle, and H.E. McCracken Middle.

-Construct and equip athletic improvements at high schools district-wide.

-Construct, equip and improve playgrounds at early childhood centers, elementary schools and PreK-8 schools district-wide. 

Robert Smalls International Academy full description of needs:

“We have over 40 leaks in our building, several from the ceiling, classroom ledges, some even from under exterior doors. Work orders have been submitted but we have been told that 8 percent of capital money goes toward those repairs which are not available to us when that money goes to purchase mobile units for other schools. Last year, the instruction was interrupted in 17 classrooms plus the media center, after significant rainfall.

The three hundred and forty-four million bond referendum is split up into two questions on the ballot. 

Question one allocates two hundred and ninety million to safety and security improvements, infrastructure and technology upgrades, and classroom additions. 

If residents vote ‘yes’ on question one, question two will be considered, which gives an additional fifty-four million to renovate career and technology education programs, athletic programs, and playgrounds at early childhood centers.

Our building has numerous HVAC issues that we have constantly submitted work orders to be serviced. We have submitted over 100 work orders since August 2018. Thirty-two work orders were submitted on May 2019, during our State testing window.

Our entire HVAC systems need an overhaul. We even have issues with our newest systems that were installed two years ago. We do not have HVAC in our main corridors or main lobby so a large portion of the building, all hallways, are not climate controlled and have the greatest influence on temperature intrusions due to exterior doors. Our HVAC systems have asbestos-containing adhesives around ductwork joints.

Our gym floor produces one of the highest amounts of mercury vapor in the district out of all the schools that have this issue. Mercury concentrations are higher close to the floor. The current solution is to run our HVAC system at a high level, keeping the environment around 68 degrees to reduce Mercury vaporization.

The question is, how long will our HVAC system perform at peak efficiency if it is constantly being taxed to maintain a 68-degree climate year-round? If the HVAC system is not working, all activities in the gym would be shut down to include school performances, gym classes, athletic practices, and games.

Our athletic facilities are not safe, regulation size, or equitable to provide our students with the same opportunities as other area schools. For many of our less affluent students who have average grades, athletics may open future doors for them to further their education and break the bonds that may hold them back.

However, without safe and equitable fields we are further limiting this population of students. Currently, none of our athletic facilities have lights which limit playing and practice time for outside sports due to shorter daylight hours that extend from the end of fall to early spring seasons. We have had to spend part of our limited athletic budget to fund additional transportation costs (nearly $400 extra in the Spring of 2018) for our softball and baseball teams to practice on county recreation fields. Two other areas schools have to do the same.

However, other county schools that have appropriate fields are able to use those funds to invest further to update necessary equipment and uniforms for their athletes. Sharing fields with high school is not feasible due to the high demand for high school athletic programs and transportation costs would still occur. We also don’t have necessary, accessible outdoor restrooms, concessions, ticket office, and locker rooms to offer our fans, guests, and visiting teams. We also don’t have adequate stands for our home and visiting fans.

Our track was installed backward so that the starting blocks are on the opposite side of the field from our fans. The track also needs to be resurfaced and could present hazards to our athletes due to the damage it has. Our indoor concession stand was built without any ventilation or running water. There is a need to update locker rooms and storage to provide home and visitor locker rooms for both boys and girls and house athletic equipment.

The entire locker rooms and athletic storage need to reviewed and updated to accommodate (football, volleyball, cheer, basketball, wrestling, track, soccer, baseball, and softball). Our wrestlers need a wrestling room complete with stands for hosted events. We also need updated wrestling mats and the ability to store them properly without constantly moving them around to gain access to areas. Basketball goals, both inside and outside, need to be replaced.

Gym size presents a safety concern and is not suitable for athletic events. Many players have crashed into stage, walls, and bleachers, and mobility around the court is difficult during game times. The current bleacher capacity does not allow for the entire student body to have seating during events. 

We don’t have an installed sound system to host quality performances and celebrations for the families of our students who have worked so hard and deserve to be showcased or to be used for our athletic events and various school assemblies. This will also allow for the hosting of community events. 

Our parking areas need to be expanded and serviced to allow for adequate parking for our families and guests, to include handicap accessible sidewalks. Many school events result in vehicles parked on our grassy areas which leave ruts and marks on the lawn. 

Widen WK Alston Drive to provide an extended turning lane for both Upper and Lower Academy Car Rider lines (two full lanes that run from Broad River Blvd to Hwy 170 on the school side of the road would be sufficient). This will prevent traffic pile up on 170 and Broad River Blvd. 

We may be the only school in the county that does not have Occupancy Light Sensors installed. These will help with the energy efficiency of our building.

The dance floor in B-7 is not used but may be used if moved to the related arts wing (Room F-2). The flooring in room B-7 needs to be replaced and the dance bars removed. A wall could be constructed between the existing B-7 classroom and the second access door so the old dance locker room could be utilized for other purposes.   

Playground needs to be expanded to accommodate the number of students in both PK-K level and 1st-5th Grade level (a larger play area, away from the building would allow students to get good physical activity without disrupting classes taking place at the same time as recess). The equipment needs to be updated, expanded, a covering provided and the play area needs to be resurfaced.  

Security cameras need to update. A detailed map of existing cameras and an additional map of requested cameras has been submitted to facilities in 2018 to increase coverage. These requests may change depending on new constructions. Many cameras need to be updated for better quality. Several existing ones should be repositioned for better functionality. Access to view cameras needs to be mobile. 

Windows need to be replaced. The vapor seal on many aged windows has broken, leading to foggy windows. The tints on the windows do not match and it is difficult to see and read what is projected on the whiteboard. Many windows are damaged. There are reports that seals around the windows are not sufficient causing leaks in the classrooms. 

Replace floors that are VCT with MCT. Current VCT floors are coming up, are not level and vapor barriers are not adequate.  

Extend sidewalk for the front parking lot so that it reaches WK Alston Drive. This will allow for more cars to stack and drop off and pick up. Extend sidewalk in the bus loop and extend the awning to cover sidewalk space. Add sidewalk from Lower Academy Parking to Main Entrance.

Repair current awnings. They currently leak and do not adequately shelter students from the weather. Extend awning on the bus loop so that students may have sheltered access to buses. 

Remove old interior signage and replace it with updated signage. Many signs have not been updated to adequately label the current functions of rooms. Outdoor signage needs to be updated and positioned appropriately to offer direction for athletic facilities, events parking, bus access, car rider access, gym access, etc.

Replace interior doors, casework, and hardware. Many of the doors are aged and do not look uniform and locks have to be serviced regularly due to malfunctions creating class security issues. 

Renovate weight room. The weight room and its limited equipment is not sufficient to service the physical training of athletes and students. 

The motorized screen in the cafeteria and gym. To allow for large group presentations to students, family, and community during events. 

Renovate/replace lockers. Many are nonfunctional and not latching preventing the student from properly securing personal belongings. Many lockers have to be serviced regularly for malfunction. The lockers are pre-existing since the early middle school days. 

Lighting improvement needed to upgrade to LED lighting throughout the school interior. Accent lighting needs to be repositioned and functional. Outdoor lighting needs to be added to dark areas for safety and security for all, and existing lighting needs to be enhanced to increase output. Outdoor lighting on brick walls needs to be updated. 

Electrical. Classroom access to electrical outlets is limited preventing the charging ability of student devices. The larger classroom and especially science labs need greater accessibility. Prefer to have outlet extensions from the ceiling. 

Fire extinguishers and casings need updating to be brought up to code and made aesthetically pleasing in the school environment. 

Furniture and rugs need to be replaced. A furniture refresh is needed in all areas to include the cafeteria. Many rugs and much of the furniture is outdated. 

Ensure all bathroom doors have magnets to meet fire and safety codes. This will also allow those doors to remain open for better supervision. 

Storage closets in classrooms need to be removed and updated. Many of these colored storage closets are not aesthetically pleasing and many closets don’t have the ability to secure materials. 

Server closets need to be relocated to more appropriate areas instead of classrooms and restrooms. (D-Hall, C-Hall, J-Hall Boys Restroom, Weightroom, Library) 

Sound panels in room E-5 need to be removed and the ceiling reconfigured to match all other classroom spaces. 

Kilns in art rooms need to be functional and fire safe. 

Exterior Doors need crash bars Installed on all main entrance and exterior classroom doors. Rework all the casings and thresholds to ensure door secures independently.  

GTT room needs to be redesigned for Project Lead the Way classes (STEM Learning Lab).

Update workroom flooring in M-Hall and  L-Hall. The current flooring is made of brick tile and needs to be updated. 

Replace cabinets in the mailroom due to them being outdated and not functional. 

Stage area needs to be redesigned to allow for riser storage and allow for greater functionality. Curtains and hardware for curtains need to be assessed for proper and complete functionality.

Outdoor amphitheater needs to be completely redone. The wooden bridges are a hazard for our self-contained classroom students. We prefer this area to be filled in and adequate sidewalks installed. 

Outdoor Seating needs to be added on both lower and upper academy areas for outdoor classroom space. Additional outdoor benches are needed and existing ones need to be replaced to match. 

All water fountains in the school need to be replaced, except for the recently added bottle filler. 

Fencing needs to be replaced and green space around fences needs to be trimmed back to provide buffer and spacing. 

Service lines need to be added to the cafeteria to adequately serve upwards of 160 students during lunch periods. 

Digital Sign needs to be enhanced to include three lines of information rather than being limited to the one scrolling line that we currently have. This is an equity issue and allows for more adequate information to be disseminated. 

Media Productions Room needs to be added so adequate spacing, equipment, and technology can be used to produce quality broadcasts without encroachment. 

Enhanced Landscaping to include irrigation to beautify the presentation of our campus. 

The public address intercom speakers in all hallways, cafeteria and outside areas around perimeter need to be accessed. The current system does not effectively transmit important announcements, to include lockdown and other critical information. 

Fire Alarm System needs updating to prevent false alarms and panel alerts that occur regularly due to the age of the system.”

For more information, visit the Citizens for Better Schools Now! website and the Beaufort County School District Facebook page.

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