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Sandy Island: Officials in talks over new school boat

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

State and local officials are due to meet this week to discuss plans to replace the boat that ferries students between Sandy Island and the mainland.

Superintendent Randy Dozier said he tried to get the last two state superintendents to talk about a new boat. He tried again after Molly Spearman took office last month. “She was very responsive,” Dozier said. “It’s nice that they are considering it.”

In her first visit to the district, Spearman was scheduled to meet Friday with district and county officials and look over the boat and a leased vessel that could serve as a replacement.

The steel-hulled school boat dates to 1968 and is the only one in the state. It carries up to 10 students in the morning and about half that number in the afternoon because some of the passengers take part in extracurricular activities. Like school buses, the boat is owned by the state Department of Education.

Sandy Island residents have tried for years to get a ferry to the island. Those efforts intensified following the drowning death of three residents whose boat sank in a storm as they crossed to the island one night in February 2009. Legislation to allow the school boat to serve a dual role as a passenger ferry was vetoed by Gov. Mark Sanford. He said he didn’t want to open the door to creating a state-run ferry system.

But Dozier said state regulation also allows the school boat to be used by the elderly or handicapped on its two daily trips.

Georgetown County and Coast RTA tried to come up with an alternate plan, with the regional transportation agency securing a $175,000 federal grant to buy a 32-foot pontoon boat. County Council balked at the cost to operate the vessel.

Island residents started their own fundraising campaign for a passenger ferry. “We’re going to wait and see what the school district is going to do,” Charles Pyatt, an organizer of that effort said. The need for a boat that is accessible for elderly residents as well as students hasn’t changed, he added.

In 2011, a complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education saying the school boat operation discriminated against minorities and the disabled. Most of the Sandy Island residents are African-Americans. While none of the students who ride the boat are disabled, the district agreed to develop a transportation plan for disabled students.

An investigation by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights dismissed complaints that the boat was unheated and that the students are subjected to fumes from the boat’s engine. The local chapter of the NAACP raised complaints about fumes again this year.

Dozier said the current boat is “serviceable,” but he envisions one that has handicapped access and could transport elderly residents. Although “not a boat person,” and not even the boat’s owner, Dozier said an enclosed pontoon boat seems to be the best solution.

Pyatt agreed that joint-use of the school boat would help residents and said he was looking forward to hearing what state education officials had to say.

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