The Good and the Bad ó EHS Conversion
By Alex Saitta
February 13, 2012
I canít think of a vote that Iíve made since I was chairman that was as close to a 50-50 in my mind as this one. There was good in the vote in terms of the result. It seems like Easley got what it wanted, and the plan will cost the same. The process was bad, though. The good edged out the bad, so I voted for it.
Likely This Plan Will Save Money
Generally, two groups came forward in this effort to keep the 1939 building. One was the historical society. The other was various leaders in the Easley community. At the January 23, 2012 board meeting 10 individuals spoke on behalf of keeping the 1939 building, and I received about 15 emails on the issue.
They all came from about the same angle. Donít tear down the 1939 building. There are things more important than money and history or our memories are two of them. A couple of the more knowledgeable people who spoke/contacted me did say keeping the 1939 building would probably save money, but most fell into the former group.
Most everyone who comes before the board says what they want is more important than money, so spend the money. For a long time the school board bought these arguments and spent the money without a lot of thought. Not surprisingly, the cost of the building program grew from its on-the-drawing-board figure of $158 million to the cost of $374 million. The debt obligation (interest and principal) of the district rose from $38 million before the program to $625 million.
At some point, the board needs to say money is important or weíll outspend our income and bury the county under a pile of debt. The last time the building plan was expanded was October 2010 when the board majority voted 7 to 1 to add $9 million to the program, boosting the cost to $374 million. I was not going to support any change in the EHS plan if it cost more money. I think the majority of the board felt this way too.
Even with the few hundred thousand blown on the design fees for the November plan added in, this final plan should cost less because it does much less tearing down of old and building of new. It relies heavily on renovation of the site.
The plan approved in November demolished 95,000 square feet and was to build back 50,000 square feet. This final plan will demo 25,000 square feet and it will build back new about 10,000 square feet.
The design costs going forward will be less because the district wonít have to design and build much from scratch. The expected savings is the primary reason I voted for it. Weíll know the cost for sure when the plan goes out for bid.
The Building Program Remains On Schedule
Like I wrote above, the argument generally was do whatever you must in order to save the 1939 building.
When the building program was passed in 2006, it had a promised termination of 2012. Given the previous administration didnít know what it was doing, the program quickly fell 2 years behind schedule so the termination date is now June 2014.
While money was a constraint in this decision, time was also a constraint in my mind too. I wasnít going to support a switch if it delayed the schedule beyond June 2014. This final plan doesnít push out the termination date of the program. The administration felt the same way and I think once it decided to draw up alternatives, the process got extremely rushed to keep any change in plans from pushing past the June 2014 termination date.
Myself, I argued back in 2006 we didnít need new high schools and they should all be renovated, so I was already there with the idea of renovation and not tearing down buildings to build new. But other than that, the reasoning of the speakers fell short of logic in most ways. For example, when they accused the board of making a hasty decision, I said it looks hasty because this is the first meeting you have attended. Where were you the past 18 months when the administration and board talked about the plan to tear down the 1939 building?
According to memos, Bob Folkman and others did their initial walk through of the 1939 building on March 11, 2010. That month at the board meeting he made public the intention to tear down the building. In a meeting on February 8, 2011 this was told to the Mayor of Easley, the city administrator and Bill Houston. This was repeated in public meetings a few times I can remember.
Reaching the November decision was not the hasty one. Actually, the 180 degree turn in a week that the speakers were urging was the hasty decision.
1979 Building Not Torn Down:
In order to keep the 1939 building, some of the leaders were urging just about anything ó more money, delay the program, and tearing down other, newer buildings.
This argument concentrated around their aim to tear down the 1979 double-decker classroom wing instead, in order to preserve the 1939 building. The other reason given for tearing down the 1979 classroom wing was to open the view of the 1939 building to those driving on Pendleton Street.
One speaker showed pictures of the 1979 building, attempting to make the point it was in worse shape structurally than the 1939 building. One, he wasnít a civil engineer or an engineer of any kind. Two, FJ Clark had studied all our buildings a few years back and rated the 1979ís structure as a 10 and the 1939ís structure as an 8.5. By the way, FJ Clark rated the condition 1979 building as fair to good, and the 1939 building as poor.
Common sense also contradicted the speakerís point. Not one building from this 1980 era has been torn down by the school district. Instead, they've been renovated and kept on line like Hagood Elementary (1980), Central (1980) or McKissick (1975). Tearing down this 1979 building would have been equivalent to tearing down Crosswell Elementary which was built in 1980.
Lost by those who wanted the 1979 building gone in order to open up the view, was the school boardís mission: To education students. Our mission is not to educate students and create views from the nearby roadways. Mission creep like they were urging is one of the primary reasons schools no longer have enough money for needed teachers or classroom supplies.
I wasnít going to support tearing down a building in the middle of its life cycle and to build a new building just 400 yards away. Ben Trotter made this point quite strongly just before the final vote.
1939 Building Will Be Renovated So Its Students Will Have Facilities Equal To Those In The Rest Of The County.
A few who emailed me asked why do anything to the school? It is functioning, so keep it as it is.
Evidently the alumni was emailed and told to contact board members. My response was when was the last time you were in the building? Most hadnít been in the 1939 building for years, some decades. When similar comments were made at the meeting, Judy Edwards responded back, the purpose of a school is to educate children, not take you down Memory Lane. No doubt the purpose of a school was lost by many in this debate.
To get the 1939 building up to required code and the standard of the building program, it will have to be gutted according to the buildings director. It needs to be. The only things that will be left will be studs on the exterior walls, the 2nd floor joist, roof structure and the exterior shell. Thatís all that will be ďsavedĒ.
Expanding on the previous point, the request to tear down the 1979 building that is newer than 5 of the 7 schools my district in order to save the shell of the 1939 building, wasnít going to work for me. The final plan approved did not tear down the 1979 building which has another 20 years of life.
Listening to the leadership in the Easley community was the right thing, even though they've been a moving target over the life of this buildings debate.
Councils and boards like ours do listen and try to grant citizen requests. Actually, I think the board could have gone either way on the matter, as long as the outcome didnít cost more time or money. If citizens would have wanted to tear down the 1939 building and build new, the board would have granted it and did in November. If citizens would have wanted to preserve the 1939 building, the board would have granted it and did in January. The leaders of Easley just needed to make up their mind.
Overall, the various leaders of Easley (past and present) brought this close call upon themselves in my opinion. Years ago many came out in force for a new high school. To convince the public of this need, the Easley leaders at the time made an over-the-top case the existing high school was in terrible shape -- mold and mildew, a roof that had partially fallen in, and it was a building that couldnít be brought up to code. I sat on the school board with some of these Easley leaders.
This argument was also made in the Daniel and Pickens areas by some leaders in those communities and from the board too.
These vocal leaders convinced people to such a degree the 1939 building was slated for demolition. Ditto for Pickens which saw its old high school building come down, and Daniel which will be knocked down in June.
When some in Easley woke up to the fact how far this argument pushed the prevailing consensus and that was about to steam roll the 1939 building, some leaders came out in the other direction. Some actually did a 180 degree turn. Suddenly it was all about the memories and how the old high school was a treasure. It was amazing how this argument was turned on its head.
The confusion on this matter was primarily due to this 180 degree turn and the administration desire to satisfy this moving target. The board was on the tail end of this ride, so the board came off like it didnít know what it was doing. More on that below.
The Board Is Holding The Line On Spending
The school board of 2010 continues to demonstrate its desire to hold the line on spending. It did it in last yearís budget process and showed it here with the building program.
If this was the board of 2006 (and maybe even with the boards of 2004 or 2008), when these individuals came forward asking to save the 1939 building, the knee-jerk response would have been, sure, letís give them more money. The plan would have grown again. Thatís the primary reason the building program went from the drawing board figure of $158 to $374 million.
When the request was made to keep the 1939 building, and some were saying money or the schedule wasnít the issue, the majority of the board remained firm on the cost cap and the time schedule. Iíll put some of the board members comments on the website at some point.
Jim Shelton deserves credit because he was the one to ask the administration to consider options, but he sure sounded like he was willing to spend more money or grow the building program again. He was quoted at the meeting by the Greenville News, ďwe [should] consider the cost of preservation as being greater than what we see on a balance sheet.Ē Another quote, ďItís wise at this point that we all consider this because itís very difficult to put a price on history.Ē
I thought, good grief, this sounds like the board of 2006 that regularly thought such and such is so important, we canít put a price tag on it or we just have to spend what we have to in order to make it happen.
In the end the majority held the line on spending and the time schedule. I give the district administration credit on this issue. It rose to the challenge and re-engineered the plan to utilize the 1939 building and maintain the schedule and the budget. It was a win-win in that sense.
While the result was good, the around about process to get to that result was bad.
It Wasnít Too Late To Change Course
When these folks came forward to say they didnít want to tear down the 1939 building, the administration said it is too late and any change would push the programís termination date further into the future. The building plan is scheduled to terminate on June 30, 2014. At that point the district is budgeted to stop paying accountants, inspectors and purchasing agents. If the plan is pushed beyond that date, it will require the district to keep paying these support people, raising expenses.
I repeated what I was told ó it isnít an 11th hour request, but it is actually 12:30. The superintendent then rushed out to create two new plans to keep the 1939 building and not push the termination date into the future. In defense to the administration this plan does little new construction and mostly all renovation so there is some time savings in this plan. However, it was a mistake for me to say what I did, without asking the question are you absolutely sure the time window of opportunity has closed?
One Rule For Easley Another Rule For Pickens?
When those in Pickens asked me and other leaders in Pickens, can the Pickens High auditorium be saved? I was told by the administration it was not possible. Mainly the auditorium was too expensive to bring up to code and it was in the middle of the demolition area. Passing on the confidence that was relayed to me, I repeated that to those who asked.
In EHS that auditorium, which is 16 years old, will remain. Obviously it isnít too old to bring up to code. Again, next time Iím going to ask are you absolutely sure?
I didnít say now that PHSís old auditorium has been torn down, we have to tear down EHSís to make it fair. Rather, during the debate of the final vote I asked, what do I say to these people in Pickens?
I heard all sorts of attempts at an answer and the only one that made sense was the EHS auditorium wasnít attached to a building that will not be torn down. PHSís was in the middle of a demolition area. Good point that I accept. However, many will see the administration and the board as applying one rule to Easley and a different one to Pickens.
Why Wasnít This Option Put Forward First?
You have to realize the buildings department doesnít bring forth the cheapest option. The cheapest option is always do nothing and live with the old broken down building you have.
The building department brings forth the cheapest option given the directive they have received. The directive was to tear down the 1939 school and that has its roots in the 2006 vote and specifically in the building walk through about 2 years ago with a couple of board members (again not me) and administration officials. To understand the root of this directive, you have to go back and examine history.
Going back to 2005-06 when the district was first formulating their county-wide building program, there were three factions within the school district/ on the school board that were spread across a spectrum from left to right. On the left was the faction that was willing to borrow and spend whatever was needed to get all new high schools and more. They were led by Dr. DíAndrea, Shirley Jones and likes of June Hay and BJ Skelton.
Then you had those on the right, mainly me, saying we should renovate, do one or two schools at a time and pay as we go. In the middle was the referendum supporters like Mendel Stewart, Oscar Thorsland and people like David Cox. They wanted to take on many schools at one time, but renovate to keep costs down and borrow about half of the DíAndrea faction.
These sides battled it out in the 2005 to 2006 period. The referendum was put on the ballot and failed. I presented an alternative plan that had no support. In the end, Shirley Jones, June Hay, Kevin Kay, Jim Brice, BJ Skelton and Herb Cooper did an end run around the voters and the democratic process and passed the Greenville Plan.
That battle was fought and won by the build-new-and-tear-down-the-old faction. That was the direction the district moved in from the time the Greenville Plan was passed in 2006 to late last month. Like I said the old Pickens High School building was torn down. Daniel High will go next. Easley Highís 1939 building was slated to come down. The district built 7 new schools riding that wave.
Jimmy Gillespie actually asked the question just before the final vote, why didnít you give us this 1939 option first? Bob Folkman said I was told about 2 years ago by district leaders and 2 board members (again I wasnít one of them), tear down the 1939 building. That led to the proposal to tear down the 1939 building of 90,000 square feet and build a new 50,000 square foot replacement.
After that plan was passed in November, some of the leaders in Easley complained and requested the old building remain. The administration (not the school board) then changed the directive to keeping the 1939 building and came forward with the cheapest proposal to do that. The board approved it.
Is the 1939 Building Structurally Sound?
Given the last minute turn, the natural question was, did the district do its due diligence with its recommendation to keep the 1939 building? I asked this question before the final vote. Is the 1939 building structurally sound? The answer I received was we think so, but we canít give you a definitive answer until the engineering studies are done.
If that isnít proof this final plan was the hasty one, I donít know what else you need to know. Again, this plan looks like it will save money, so I rolled with the last minute 180 degree turn. But I wasnít going to go into this risk blind.
Like I said, before the final vote I examined the FJ Clark study that rated the 1939 structure at an 8.5 and slated the 1939 building for renovation in 2005. Mike Keeshan & Associates had done the same just after that.
I made a point to call David Watson before the vote too. Watson had renovated the old old 1919 Easley High School and I asked him what he thought of 1939 building. He said he had inspection it one time inside and out and said it was sound. For what it is worth, I walked the exterior around the foundation a few days before the final vote and I didnít see much cracking in the foundation or sidewalks. Stable. My guess is, with materials and labor as cheap as it was in 1938-39, the motto probably was just pour another foot of concrete just to make sure. The school is like a bunker. Thick.
Likely the 1939 building is sound, but the district wonít know until that engineering study is done. There is some risk on this issue.
By the way, Iím not blaming anyone for not ordering an engineering report on the structure. Up until recently the assumption everyone was working under was the building would be torn down.
Creates A Super Middle School
This final plan for the EHS conversion creates a super middle school. It will be like none of the others with its own stadium and auditorium. Those questioning the building programís "promise of parity" have a valid point in this instance. Liberty Middle backed into its own auditorium in much the same way when the old Liberty High school became the new middle school, but the fact remains. The result is unequal here.
The Board Got Involved Too Late On This One
I'm OK with the result providing the cost comes in the same or less, but the process was bad/ turned my stomach. I made a couple mistakes, mostly getting involved too late and not asking enough tough questions early on. Iíve got some responsibility in the bad process, so does the administration, as well as some of the leaders in Easley.
The old board members who represented Easley and many of the community leaders were unkind to the 1939 building or were OK with tearing it down. In fact, some of the leaders in Easley were shown the plan to tear down the 1939 building and there wasn't vocal objection. After the requests to keep the 1939 building, the administration examined all the possible options to keep the building. When two were shown to the board, the board picked the one which is likely to be the cheapest.
The board was on the tail end of this ride. Those who say, ďOh Alex, the board should just set policy and shouldnít get involved.Ē Baloney. When something happens that makes the board look like we all donít know what we are doing, it rubs off mostly on the board. Next time, weíll get involved earlier.
I think the result was good, but the process was very bad on this one. In sum, it reminded me of a broken play in football that results in a gain.
This was the first time since Iíve been chairman I truly felt we had a bad execution or government process. This is was not the way to make a $13 million decision.
If it would have cost more, I think I would have thrown up then and there, screamed and then voted, ďNoĒ. But it will not cost more. If it does, I won't vote to spend more money. For that reason I swallowed the rest of this stuff and voted to switch to the cheaper plan that maintained the program schedule and didnít mindlessly tear down the 1979 building which has about 20 years of life yet.