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City Council, February 10

A troubling commitment to the Meeting Street Academy
CWS to benefit from lower interest rates and better City bond rating
Marc Knapp

The pleas by the parents of some of children attending the Meeting Street Academy were hard to ignore. They spoke so eloquently, and clearly from the heart, and one parent, through tears. The school was providing an excellent education, a stimulating environment, and had made parental involvement mandatory. The principal of the school told City Council last night that its pupils were a year ahead of those in public schools. It was a school that was working very well. Unfortunately, its enrolment is only kindergarten and preschool. This amounts to 45 pupils at the present location on King St. But the school hopes to expand and add a grade each year to ultimately offer classes up to the 8th grade. And this depended on City Council.

City to buy the land for the school
The Academy was asking Council to approve a plan worked out with the City and SCE&G whereby it would lease a property on Meeting Street on which a school would be built. As well as a school, there would be a park and a gymnasium. These and the new building would be financed by Sherman Financial Group, a local group, at a cost of about $9 million. But all this was conditional on getting the land, now owned by SCE&G. The 2.4 acre block is in the heart of the Neck area, at the corner of Cool Blow and Meeting Streets

Mayor Riley speaking in support of the school said that City would acquire the land from SCE&G for $4.7 million. The land would subsequently be leased to the Academy for 50 years for a consideration of $10. The academy would have the right to extend the lease for another 2 terms of 25 years each. He justified the arrangement in that the citizens of the City could use the park and gym when not used by the school. And besides, the City would now work with SCE&G to locate future transformers and transmission equipment that would have been placed on the site and which in his opinion would have detracted from the area as it is redeveloped.

CSB Superintendent in “full support”
The Mayor also said that the school was a “form of charter school” It would be open to all citizens. The school would charge $1 a day per student. He also expected that its success would lead it to become a “national model”. He also noted that Dr. Nancy McGinley, Superintendent of the County School Board was in “full support”.

Some Council members and citizens oppose plan
Council ultimately approved the purchase but two members – Alexander and Mallard opposed it. There were also two citizens who opposed it as well. And the argument was understandable. What was the City doing, getting into a preserve that was rightly that of the Charleston County Schools? If the City was supported this initiative, should it not support similar initiatives in the public schools. Mr. Ed Jones a resident of the Eastside has frequently asked Council to address education issues for the district’s youth and has been a strong critic of the School Board and its recent action relating to school closings and busing. He was bitter about the lack of opportunity for youth and the City’s inaction.

Mayor’s stance surprising
In Citizens Participation, I also questioned the City’s move. There seems little doubt that the school is very good, and may well be as successful as the Mayor expects. It seems harsh to deny it an opportunity to prove itself. But there is an inherent unfairness in that nearby residents will have the advantage of enrolment and there will not be similar opportunities for the children of all citizens. I also expressed surprise at the Mayor’s support. He has not been a proponent of charter schools or vouchers. But now he is doing an about-face. Considering the poor record of the School board over the years, maybe the principles of the Academy should be running the County schools?

And what about the commitment of the Sherman Group?
Nobody asked about the certainty of the commitment by the Sherman Financial Group to the new School, or details about the group. The generosity of the Group should be applauded. But notwithstanding, we hope that the City will make sure that the Group can make good on its promise before purchasing the land.

City to refinance up to $137 million in debt issued for water and sewage works
Good economic news comes too infrequently these days. So it was heartening to hear the potential benefits of falling interest rates and a higher rating by Standard and Poors for the City’s debt. In consequence, Charleston Water System (ex CPW) may call up some outstanding debt and refinance at lower interest rates.

Council last night approved a plan whereby the entity could refinance $135 million of outstanding debt. Mr. Charlton De Saussure indicated that the utility could save $450,000 a year by refinancing. Its debt is much more than $137 million but because maturities and call protection provisions, the opportunity of savings does not extend over all that has been issued. The bonds that are being called have coupons of between 4.65% and 5.7%. The City expects that it will pay only about 3.75 % on the new bonds.

CCL to pay for a green study of the City
Council took another step last night in its attempt to make the city “greener”. We are not sure we would have supported the initiative but as the Coast Conservation League is footing the bill, we can hardly object. It seems that at the request of the City’s Green Committee, of which the CCL is a member, a consulting agreement is to be signed with Serrafix Inc, of Boston, to make a study that “lays out how Charleston can finance and deliver buildings energy efficiency in a sufficient time frame and at sufficient scale in order to meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals”

There are two phases of the work plan. The first will cost no more than $50,000 and $10,000 in travel expenses. It will be preliminary, “to evaluate and understand economic, energy use, housing and institutional situation in the City. Identify initial opportunities of large scale intervention…,” etc.

The wording of the cost of the second phase seems ambiguous. CCL commits to financing a total of no more than $500,000 and $50,000 travel expenses. But whether this will be the total final cost, we are not sure. The second Phase will be developed with the City and will include:

“Review state/local/ISP regulatory and market barriers to efficiency and strategy for removal/exploitation…. Review financing options… Develop a service delivery strategy with recommendations on the roles of utilities….. Develop a set of overarching goals for transportation investment and policies in the City.”

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