St. James Elementary parents complain of mold, want new school built

Parents and guardians of St. James Elementary School students are questioning Horry County Schools board members about a new building projects priorities list that doesn’t include replacing their children’s school.

June Johnson, whose grandchildren are in first and second grades at St. James, spoke during Monday’s board meeting about health-related concerns at the school.

Johnson told The Sun News before the meeting that she’s witnessed mold in several areas throughout the school, and she’s concerned about the students’ and staff’s safety.

St. James Elementary School Principal Felisa McDavid sent an email to parents Jan. 16 explaining that certain areas of the school, including the gymnasium, cafeteria and portable classrooms, were scheduled for air quality testing on Jan. 21.

The email states that Palmetto EHS, LLC, an environmental, health and safety consulting firm would likely provide feedback to the school within 7-10 days, and the school has an action plan, if necessary.

“I want to reassure you that the District and St. James Elementary are being very proactive in this matter and will continue to work swiftly to resolve any air quality issues if any are found,” McDavid wrote.

District spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said the school hasn’t received the test results.

Replacing St. James Elementary previously was on the district’s five-year capital recommendation list — the projected $48.7 million project was set to begin during the 2022-23 school year.

But a board retreat on Dec. 3 left that project off the priorities list in favor of modular classrooms, renovating Myrtle Beach High School and replacing Whittemore Park Middle School. Renovating St. James High School did make the priorities list.

Board member Neil James, who was serving as interim chairman during the board retreat, pointed out during a facilities meeting that the full board has not officially voted on the new priorities list.

New board member Helen Smith could be a potential advocate for the St. James Elementary parents.

Smith, whose district includes St. James, said during the facilities meeting that St. James Elementary and Socastee High School appear to be more in need of replacing/renovations than the schools the former board prioritized.

Smith and new board chairman Ken Richardson are the only two current board members who did not get the chance to vote during the Dec. 3 board retreat.

The board voted during Monday’s meeting to finalize a “Pay-as-you-Go” funding model to fund its building projects. The model, which includes no borrowing or increased millage rate, is projected to provide about $40 million through 2024.

Board members had discussed funding options for more than a year before finalizing the plan. Janice Morreale was the only board member to vote against the decision.

Mark Wolfe, HCS executive director of facilities, handed out a list of potential projects to complete through 2024 during the facilities meeting that added up to just under $40 million.

Wolfe’s list included a projected $2.5 million real estate purchase for 30 acres owned by Burroughs & Chapin in Carolina Forest to set aside for a new elementary school.

A new Carolina Forest elementary school was not among the priorities voted on by the board, but HCS Director of Planning Joe Burch explained that the district’s option to purchase the property expires at the end of the year.

The list also included about $1.4 million for designing renovations/replacements at St. James, Myrtle Beach and Conway high schools and Whittemore Park Middle School.

Smith challenged these costs in stating she believed this was premature because they didn’t know how much funding they’d have moving forward, and their list of priorities could change.

James said the board needs “to do something” after “spinning our wheels for two years” on building projects.

“If we don’t move forward in some way, we’re losing ground,” he said.

Smith countered that the board should only move forward once funding is in place.

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Investigative project reporter David Weissman joined The Sun News after three years working at The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania, where he earned awards for his investigative reports on topics including health, business, politics and education.