A little surprised by the price tag on South Carolina Department of Transportation’s proposed sidewalk project in Indian Land, the Lancaster County School District must assess funding priorities before making a decision.
Prompted by a petition signed by more than 300 concerned parents, Lancaster County School District Safety and Transportation Director Bryan Vaughn sent a letter to SCDOT addressing the need for sidewalks and signal upgrades at the intersection of U.S. 521 and River Road.
“I didn’t know how it would rate on (SCDOT’s) scale. And I didn’t know what their funding formula would be,” Vaughn said. “But was it going to be something where we’re told we’re going to have to fund it 100 percent? I wasn’t necessarily expecting that. I thought it might be a joint effort or through some grant funding.”
SCDOT presented two options to the district. One includes sidewalks along River Road and U.S. 521, and costs $375,000. The other requires an internal sidewalk from campus to a sidewalk along U.S. 521, and costs $148,400. With both options, the district would bear all costs.
Vaughn said he understands that, like every other state agency, SCDOT is probably woefully underfunded. But, he said, it comes down to responsibility.
“We’re in the school business, our focus is education of students,” he said. “It gets into a philosophical discussion about whether school districts should be building sidewalks on roads that are owned and maintained by the state.”
Getting stuck with the bill, the district now has to determine if the project gets done – a decision Vaughn said won’t be made until the school board approves next year’s fiscal budget on July 1.
“In a perfect world, there’s funding for every project,” he said. “But there’s a lot of competing projects out there for capital needs’ dollars. A lot of folks believe that the money is better spent in the classroom or hiring better teachers or recruiting bus drivers.”
With a new high school underway, Vaughn said the issue may “evaporate” in two years when the current high school turns into a middle school; because, traditionally, middle school students don’t stay after school as much as high school students, which decreases the potential foot traffic.
“Conventional wisdom says that even if we built the sidewalks, and say it took a year to get the funding and six months to get construction, we might only have the use for them for five to eight months before the brand new high school is built,” he said.
“Would that $150,000 have been spent wisely or would it be a really short-term thing that wouldn’t be used as much or any?”
When asked whether the district is taking the sidewalk issue into consideration in the construction of the new high school, Vaughn said the new school is being built in an extremely rural area – much like the area where the current high school broke ground in 2006.
“The (current) high school wasn’t built in an urbanized area. It was rural and then it became a suburban area after the fact,” he said. “As far as sidewalks (at the new high school), there’s just really nowhere for those sidewalks to connect to because basically there’s nothing out there to go to. It’s just a rural area right now.”
Lancaster County School District superintendent Dr. Jonathan Phipps said the district recognizes there may be a need for sidewalks at the intersection of U.S. 521 and River Road and is concerned about every safety issue at all of its schools.
“But we have to balance this need against the safety needs we have at all schools across the district,” Phipps said. “Until we find funds to address this issue, we’ll make sure our administrators and resource officers monitor students and work to educate students and parents on being safe in those areas.”
The sidewalk project is not off the table. Vaughn said the district is researching grant funding and the school board will begin prioritizing capital needs projects in April and May.
“I’m not saying that we don’t like the idea or we would not embrace it, certainly, if there’s a way we can do it then, absolutely, we’d love to see it happen,” Vaughn said. “But if it comes down to dollars and we have to make some hard decisions, I just don’t know where that project is going to fall.”
Stephanie Jadrnicek: email@example.com