Conway parents, teachers and staff are just hoping that one day soon their 60-year-old schools will be up for replacement.
But for now, staff have to deal with aging structures, leaking roofs and constantly damp classrooms as Horry County Schools spends millions to build new schools in other areas.
Conway has three of the oldest schools in the district: South Conway Elementary, Whittemore Park Middle and Conway High. There’s been some additions to the schools and a few major repairs, but the buildings have stood with the original structures since the late 1950s.
(The district) knew about these problems when they issued the money for the new schools. And it’s come to light now because it’s being questioned.
Alicia Todd, parent of a Conway student
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None of those schools – some of which have mold, plumbing issues, electrical problems and more – are on the district’s short term replacement list.
“We’re not even on the 10-year plan,” said Alicia Todd, parent of a Conway student.
Todd is pressing Horry County Schools’ Board of Education for replacement schools for any – or all – of Conway’s oldest buildings. She acknowledges the repairs or replacements recently made to some of the schools, including Whittemore Park’s kitchen improvements and Conway High’s new athletic bus, but said more needs to be done for the students of Conway -- especially with four other attendance areas getting new or replacement schools by 2017.
The board approved the construction of five new schools for $72.9 over the original budget in November. The district will spend $240 million total on all five schools. The new schools: Carolina Forest middle; Myrtle Beach middle; St. James intermediate; Socastee middle; and a new Socastee elementary school. Board officials based the need off of attendance growth – especially in Carolina Forest, which has seen a boom over the years – but some Conway residents feel they’ve been overlooked.
While Conway isn’t growing as rapidly as other areas, it has the oldest schools, Todd said. Those schools are about six decades old and need to be replaced because some have immediate needs.
“Conway has just been forgotten,” Todd said. “I don’t think there’s any ill intention, I just think there’s a heavier concentration of attention in other areas of the district.”
Janet Graham, one of three Conway representatives on the board of education, said Conway isn’t getting any new schools this building round because of the overcrowding at other schools in the district. The safety of students is paramount, Graham said, so giving children a safe – and not crowded – school is one of the reasons she approved the building projects.
That doesn’t mean she’s forgotten about Conway, though. Graham said that board members have to wear two hats: one as a representative of their district; and one as a representative of the county as a whole.
“You have to be as fair as you possibly can,” she said.
Parts of Whittemore Park were built in the 1950s with the most recent renovations in the front office, which modernized the school. Judy Beard, Whittemore’s principal, said she’s most concerned with the two back wings of the schools – the oldest part of the 800-student facility.
Damp ceiling tiles drip onto floors dotted with black spots while some back classrooms run dehumidifiers to keep the dampness at bay. Visitors can feel a temperature change walking from one classroom to the next, and some rooms smell like stale air and wet floors.
For teachers, staff and students, this is the “new normal.”
“We were really hopeful that something would be done about this building,” Beard said. “But now it’s just something we live with.”
Along with dank classrooms and old laminate flooring, Whittemore has roof leaks and aging paint in some corridors, Beard said. One small room is now only used as a storage space because there’s a mystery leak dripping from the ceiling into a plastic trash can.
Many teachers in the back corridors routinely get sick from the damp conditions, even when staff empty a dehumidifier twice daily. Margie Gordyk, guidance counselor, said watching her large dehumidifier fill up from the moisture in her office – an old band room – is common.
“I just get sick so often,” she said. “We all do on this wing.”
Even the school’s kitchen is still outdated despite recent improvements. The facility was built to feed about 600 students, but now must process 800 students for breakfast and lunch every day. Two portable air conditioning units were brought in to reduce the heat put upon the eight-person staff during spring and fall, but the tiny kitchen still steams during hotter months, Beard said.
I think our parents have not been very vocal about asking the hard questions. They don’t know what they don’t know, and they thought it was like this at all the district schools.
Judy Beard, Whittemore Park Middle principal
All the small improvements made – maintenance, air conditioners, dehumidifiers – are just putting a bandage on a big wound, Beard said.
The hope is one day soon Whittemore Park students will have a new facility to call home, Beard said. But, for now, major improvements must be made to keep any more teachers or students from getting sick – or worse.
“We have to take care of these old buildings now or there’s going to be a much bigger cost down the road,” she said.
Horry County Schools has $210 million of deferred maintenance costs across the entire district as of December, according to Mark Wolfe, executive director of facilities. Wolfe said the total should decrease some later this year due to completed projects, but the number “also contains increases each year as buildings and components continue to age.”
South Conway Elementary has seen its share of maintenance costs.
Leon Hayes, principal, said he’s thankful for everything the district has done so far to improve the aging building, but there’s still more that needs to be done. The school – which was built in 1955 – is getting a new HVAC system this summer due to numerous problems over the years. Installation will start the day after school gets out and continue into the late summer, Hayes said.
Replacing HVAC systems are a common maintenance for every type of building, but the decades-old South Conway needs more than new heating and air vents.
“I just hope that sometime soon we’re on the list for a replacement building,” Hayes said. “The kids deserve it.”
South Conway doesn’t have the same problems as Whittemore Park – there’s no mold or roof leaks – and the campus is well-kept, Hayes said. Students have even planted flower beds in front of the Title I school and take pride in the old brick building off Fourth Avenue. But a new building with classrooms that meet the new size standards – the rooms are smaller because they were built six decades ago – and an updated facade would do wonders for Conway’s community, Hayes said.
“When people look at something nice, it lifts morale and makes everyone look better,” he said.
But for Todd, it’s not just about a new facade and cleaned up schools; it’s about fairness, too. Carolina Forest is getting a new middle school because of the population boom over the past decade, officials said. Todd wants to know why, like Conway schools, the district couldn’t just add on to existing Carolina Forest buildings.
We’ve been able to call some attention to these older schools, but the hope is to bring more awareness to our situation.
Judy Beard, Whittemore Park Middle principal
She said bringing a new school to Conway would cut funding for a new school elsewhere, but the conditions of Whittemore Park and Conway High are more important.
“These other attendance areas have wonderful, beautiful newer schools,” Todd said. “We just need some help.”
When Graham, board member, was first elected to the board, new school talks were already in place. She’s pushing for new Conway schools and replacements in the next building project, and said better facilities are on the horizon.
“I’m very positive about the future of Conway and our facilities,” she said.
In a perfect world, Todd said she hopes the three Conway representatives on the school board – Jeffrey Garland, Janet Graham and Neil James – push for new facilities. Beard, Whittemore’s principal, said the district needs to consider the impact of old buildings on the morale of its low income students.
“We need to think of the whole system and not just focus on the areas of growth,” Beard said. “These children of poverty deserve something nice, they need something to be proud of.”
Claire Byun: 843-626-0381, @Claire_TSN