THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES
Education: Charter school accepts $4.5 million bid
By Charles Swenson
Students in Georgetown County return to class next week, but at Coastal Montessori Charter School eyes are on August 2016.
Notice went out this week to FBi Construction of Florence that it has been awarded the bid to build a 27,000-square-foot facility for the charter school. The cost is $4.55 million and the contract specifies construction be completed in 300 days. The school will go up on 6.9 acres on Highway 17 at Old Plantation Drive in Hagley.
The project is funded through a $6 million loan from the federal Rural Development agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency has to approve the contract before work can begin. “Every day it gets closer and closer,” said Rob Horvath, who chairs the charter school board. “This is the closest we’ve been. It just takes a long time.”
FBi Construction is currently working on security upgrades for the Georgetown County School District. The firm also built Waccamaw Intermediate School. SGA Architecture, which designed the charter school, also designed the intermediate school.
Charter schools receive public funds, but have their own boards and are exempt from some state regulations. But they don’t receive funds for construction, which led Coastal Montessori to the USDA for a low-interest loan. The school is beginning its fourth year in a once-vacant wing at Waccamaw Middle School. It now has 191 students enrolled in grades one through six and a waiting list of 64 children.
The school closed on the property last September. It unveiled its building design in February. It also submitted a request to the school district, which sponsors the school, to amend its charter to allow seventh and eighth grades. That would take it up to 256 students.
Montessori classes contain a mix of grades. That philosophy carried into the design, said James Rice, the project manager for SGA. “It’s very community oriented and collaborative,” he said. “We think it’s going to be a huge asset to the community.”
The charter school is open to all students in Georgetown County, and the location on the southern end of Waccamaw Neck was selected to help attract more minority students from the Georgetown area. The building will help with recruitment. “It makes everybody start talking,” Horvath said. The site required approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees aspects of school district operations under court-ordered desegregation that dates to the 1970s.
“It’s a continued effort to get the word out,” Horvath said. “We have a lot of diverse students on the waiting list.”
Although its goal is to mirror the racial mix of the school district as a whole, which is about 40 percent African-American, it has to accept students in the order they apply or through a lottery where applications exceed places. There’s a perception that minority applicants are favored, Horvath said. “That’s illegal,” he said. “We want to reflect the community, but we don’t want to discriminate against any student.”
While plans for ground-breaking ceremonies have come and gone, the school’s focus is now on getting work started. All the permits are in place, and the building plans have been reviewed by the state Office of School Facilities. Once work begins, FBi has 300 days to turn the building over to the school and another 30 days to wrap up any “punch list” work, Rice said.
The charter school expects to move as soon as possible once the school year ends so Waccamaw Middle can reclaim its classrooms.
“The biggest thing at the end is going to be the move,” Horvath said. “You start looking at it, it’s a lot of stuff.”