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Sandy Island: Change in school boat may aid residents

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Residents of Sandy Island were told during a visit from State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman last week that a new school ferry could be used to transport the elderly and disabled to the mainland.

Georgetown County School District Superintendent Randy Dozier called Spearman during her first week in office about the condition of the state’s only school boat.

“I couldn’t sleep that night,” she told community leaders and island residents gathered at Waccamaw Middle School before taking a ride on the 50-year-old diesel-powered Prince Washington to Sandy Island and back. Dozier introduced the group greeting the new superintendent as “folks who have been talking about the boat for some time.”

While the safe transportation of school children is Spearman’s priority — she had the Coast Guard inspect the school boat after hearing that students went home smelling of diesel fumes — a new arrangement could open the door to solving transportation needs for other island residents.

“I would like to see this matter come to a close,” said the Rev. George Weathers, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church and a resident of the island. “We have been going through this for a long time,” he said. “All we were getting was promises.”

Weathers told Spearman that he had been assured senior citizens could ride the school boat, but the captain said they couldn’t. “That was a hurt for the community,” he said, “to know that senior citizens with no transportation could not ride.”

Spearman said she and deputy superintendent Vergie Chambers had come to Georgetown County to look, listen and learn. “This is a top priority for us,” she said. “There are some issues with the handicapped accessibility, and it’s just an old boat. We need to find another way to transport the children. I want you to know that every option is on the table and we want to solve this issue for now and make a decision that will be long-term. We won’t come back to this again.”

Geales Sands, executive director of the Bunnelle Foundation, said she hoped Spearman was seeing the big picture. “Everybody has a lot of hope that things are ripe to develop into a community solution as opposed to just a school solution,” Sands said.

Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway said a proposed partnership between the county, the school district and the state Department of Education could provide transportation for school children and additional trips for the public. He said conversations had been held with the owner of a private 42-foot pontoon that seemed like a viable option.

“There are resources for matching funds that could expand the number of trips that may not be available if the department chose to just replace the boat. We were excited to learn of your willingness to consider all options,” Hemingway told Spearman.

She said that if buying a new boat is the best option she wants it to be a long-term solution for students that provides transportation for the elderly and handicapped if there is space. “I want you all to know that Dr. Dozier is very concerned about this,” Spearman said. “It takes us all working together.”

School and county officials accompanied the superintendent and her associates to Yauhannah where they looked at a 42-foot pontoon similar to the one proposed as a replacement for the school boat. Spearman said a decision should be made within three weeks.

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