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Mayor, FMU question commitment to magnet school in Florence

February 4, 2018 GMT

FLORENCE, S.C. – Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela says the city has $12 million available for a magnet high school downtown, but he has seen little evidence from Florence School District One to indicate timely completion of the project.

“It’s been two years since the agreement was consummated, and we’re concerned about whether and when it will come to fruition,” Wukela said.

In February 2016, the city, school district and Francis Marion University announced a partnership to bring a school of the arts and health sciences to the district-owned Poynor facility. The district agreed to renovate and redevelop the facility, and the university agreed to develop curricula.

The entities agreed to complete the project by 2021.

“Those dates are important, because there are legal requirements,” Wukela said.

Since the $12 million is borrowed on anticipated tax increment financing revenue, there are government rules about where and when the money can be spent. Wukela said the time limits are not imposed by the city.

Wukela said he wants formal communication from the school district.

“We have not had any communications or formal communications in many, many months,” Wukela said.

Wukela and Francis Marion University President Fred Carter wrote a letter asking about the project. Letters for the board members and interim superintendent were hand-delivered to the school district on Jan. 16, and Wukela said he has not received a response.

“It’s not reassuring,” Wukela said.

Barry Townsend, the school board chairman, said the district has not wavered in its commitment to the magnet school project. He said the board will discuss the project at its Feb. 8 meeting.

“I am disappointed that, given the ‘serious concerns’ the mayor and Mr. Carter reference in their letter, neither of our partners in this endeavor have contacted me to inquire into the status of the project or express any concerns prior to now,” Townsend said in a statement to the Morning News. “Had they done so, those concerns could have been easily addressed.”

Two other school projects accompanied the original magnet school announcement. The school district agreed to renovate McClenaghan High School and house adult education and the district offices in that building. It would also rebuild the Beck Early Childhood Center, which is under construction and funded by the district.

Townsend said Poynor is by necessity the last project scheduled for completion by 2021. He said adult education must move out of Poynor before a magnet school can move in.

Dr. Randy Bridges, former superintendent for District One, said getting McClenaghan’s building plans approved by the Office of School Facilities was a lengthy process.

“There were a number of recommendations from OSF to upgrade the facility, as you might imagine, based on the age of the building,” Bridges said. “The major issue was how to provide support for a wall between two facilities, with the district being the owner of one side of the wall. It took several months’ discussions, meetings and finally an onsite visit from OSF to get this issue resolved.”

The Morning News received a copy of Wukela and Carter’s letter from an anonymous source.

“We have seen no plans for Poynor’s renovation, nor has the District made any effort to collaborate with the University toward developing curricula for the magnet school,” the letter said.

The letter also said discussion about the magnet school has been absent from school district discussions on new facilities.

“The School District has publicly considered and discussed, at length, all manner of various possible plans for funding and constructing new facilities, including new high schools,” the letter says. “Your discussions have, at times, involved district trustees directing criticism towards the City for not joining with the School Board to meet school facility needs.”

Bridges said the McClenaghan and Poynor projects already had a funding source, so there was no reason to add those projects to the facilities discussion. Also, he said the magnet school would not lessen the need for new and/or renovated high schools.

“I never thought the magnet high school would be used to significantly reduce the student enrollment at the two largest high schools,” Bridges said.