Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Survey: Sykes vs. Limbaugh, Mystery Web Redesign, and More

Posted by Greg Hambrick on Tue, May 12, 2009 at 10:51 AM


This week's survey is up and running.

We've got fun questions on Rush Limbaugh's terrorist cred, a mysterious web redesign, Sanford vs. Budget, and Charleston illiteracy.

Here's two survey questions, along with two of four possible answers. But go ahead and take the full survey.

1. Comedian Wanda Sykes was poking fun at Rush Limbaugh when she allegedly went too far with a joke about the talk radio king being a terrorist mastermind. It would have been funny if it weren’t:

A. True.

B. Totally implausible. Limbaugh can’t fit in a standard airport seat.

2. We know somebody who knows somebody who has been working on a new web design. What’s the first complaint our friend of a friend is sure to hear?

A. “But I liked sitting and waiting for the picture thingy to automatically change.”

C. “No matter what, it’s never going to be the same without the ink all over my hands.”

Take the full survey.

Photo by flickr user mandj98

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Schools Move Forward With Seismic Upgrades

Posted by Greg Hambrick on Tue, Apr 28, 2009 at 4:00 PM


School District staff are expected to move forward this spring with massive rehabilitation plans for the county’s downtown schools most vulnerable to an earthquake. The school board has asked staff to bring forward a proposal next month to address the structural concerns and could move quickly on recommendations.

Charleston sits over a fault line that’s caused a few minor shuffles and shakes over the past few months. The region is also home to the massive, fatal Earthquake of 1886, which looms as a reminder more than a century later that hurricane-force winds aren’t the only natural disaster that pose a threat to the region. Five of the district’s campuses on the peninsula were never designed to withstand the ground shaking under them and would hold little hope of making it through.

The district has been constrained by budget concerns, but discretionary money in the building fund, increased awareness on the school board, and the potential for federal stimulus aid have reignited plans for precautionary improvements.

“The window has opened for us to proceed with speed,” says Bill Lewis, the district’s building director.

The Big Fix e9e8/1240945850-buist_academy_resized.jpg

A strong advocate for earthquake-safe improvements, Lewis has seen the traumatic impacts of earthquakes in California, including lives lost and the looming terror of aftershocks.

“This is not academic for me,” he says.

The campuses downtown, specifically the Rivers building, Buist Academy, Memminger Elementary, Charleston Progressive, and James Simmons Elementary, are highly vulnerable because of the soil conditions and the building structures. The peninsula is on terrible soil, Lewis says, and the schools themselves are not up to today’s seismic standards.

“They have very little sheer strength, and that’s what causes the issue,” he says.

Rivers has already received approval for intense rehabilitation to address seismic concerns. Solutions for the other campuses were included in a district-wide restructuring plan that the board approved earlier this year. It would require relocating students to empty buildings temporarily while the old buildings are extensively modified or demolished and rebuilt.

The district has up to $7 million on hand that it can spend on seismic analysis and designs, Lewis says.

Call For Baby Steps

Board member Arthur Ravenel recalls vivid stories of the 1886 earthquake handed down from his grandmother, who was 22 at the time.

“She said it sounded like all the freight trains in the world came together in a big wreck,” he says.

Ravenel supports incremental seismic upgrades established by the Federal Emergency Management Administration. A 2003 manual notes phased-in improvements could be made along with regularly scheduled maintenance.

“Such an approach, if carefully planned, engineered, and implemented, will ultimately achieve the full damage reduction benefits of a more costly and disruptive single-stage rehabilitation,” the manual reads.

This could work for other district buildings with fewer problems, but Lewis says, "The magnitude of challenges with the first 5 schools may make incremental seismic renovation impractical."

He says staff will be in a better position to advise the board after the engineering analysis.

The district needs to be aggressive in dealing with the seismic concerns, says board Vice Chairman Gregg Meyers, noting that the idea of downtown schools vulnerable to an earthquake “creeps me out.”

Also Read: New study: Charleston overreacting to earthquake threat (May '08)

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Legislators Challenge Temporary School Funding Fix

Posted by Greg Hambrick on Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 12:41 PM

9ab2/1240504542-__mg_3170_resized.jpgA small fix to the state funding formula for schools would provide a little extra money next year for Charleston, but legislators in other districts that would be negatively impacted have introduced a bill to stop the change.

South Carolina uses an antiquated formula that bases state aid to school districts on the value of taxable property in the district. It has historically benefited poor, rural regions to the detriment of high-value urban and coastal districts. In 2007, the state pulled the taxes for schools off of owner occupied homes. Now, the Department of Revenue is poised to remove those property values from the equation.

Losing expensive homes that have inflated the tax values would be a small boon for Charleston — the district would get an additional $600,000 to $700,000 in state funding, according to district finance director Michael Bobby.  Districts where owner-occupied homes account for a smaller percentage of the total taxable property — places like Horry County — would be left hurting from the change. Others, where the homes accounted for nearly half of their taxable property, will see a surge in state aid. Due to Charleston’s even distribution among various types of property (owner, rental, commercial, industrial), we’re near the middle, Bobby says.

“There’s about as many losers as winners,” he says.

While he can understand the gripe from counties like Horry, Bobby says that Charleston has to consider the bottom line until there’s a long term fix.

“In the short term, we’d seek to generate any additional revenue we can,” he says.

The proposed legislation, which received a subcommittee hearing earlier this week, would keep owner-occupied home values in the formula, artificially inflating values in Charleston and elsewhere, until the entire formula is changed. But real change isn’t likely to happen until the state can find more money, so no district walks away from the table with less money. In these tough budget times, it’s just not going to happen.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Web Extra: A Little Tax Credit Backstory

Posted by Greg Hambrick on Wed, Apr 8, 2009 at 5:09 AM

1d12/1239193329-cover_resized.jpgIn today’s issue, we look at the latest tax credit proposal in the Statehouse and we mention the tangled history of tax credits in S.C. But we also talked last week with Will Folks, Gov. Mark Sanford’s former spokesman and now a blogger at FITS News, about the history of tax credits and vouchers in South Carolina and a little about the future of the current proposal.

Sanford started out of the gate late in 2003, waiting too long to release his education proposals, he says. While the governor has been supportive of school choice, Folks says Sanford has never gotten passionate about the effort.

“I’m not convinced that the governor has ever put his energy into the education debate. He’s a budget guy,” he says. “It’s not quite on the front burner.”

Folks, a tax credit advocate, says that everything Sanford first proposed has been morphed and tweaked.

“I think you’ve seen an evolving effort,” he says. “This version is a pretty fair compromise.”

He says the rocky past of the voucher debate shouldn’t hamper the tax credit proposal.

“People are smart enough to make a decision on what is in the proposal,” Folks says.

And growing dissatisfaction with South Carolina’s ranking nationally and a widening achievement gap may provide fresh support for the private school options.

“There’s a chance you can see movement this year because there’s frustration out there,” Folks says. “Even our smartest kids are falling behind the rest of the country.”

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Monday, March 30, 2009

School Tax Credits: Sen. Ford Has Lots of Confused, Troubled, Spurned Friends

Posted by Greg Hambrick on Mon, Mar 30, 2009 at 12:24 PM

More than 50 local community leaders, pastors, and citizens came out Monday to oppose a new effort for tax credits to go toward private school education and to call out their friend Sen. Robert Ford for introducing the measure.

Ford (D-Charleston) is one of the only members of the Legislative Black Caucus to come out in support of the tax credits. The bill would also provide tax credits for donations to private school scholarship programs for children from low-income families.

Led by the NAACP, the event today was in response to Ford's suggestion that he had strong support in his community for the bill.

"Let us make one thing clear," said Rep. David Mack (D-Charleston). "One cannot support vouchers and tax credits and be a supporter for public schools. Funds are more limited now than they've ever been."

Several of the speakers talked of protecting public schools from losing students or resources, but others spent their time at the mic venting their angry befuddlement at Ford's new support for private school tax credits.

"He's forgotten how he got where he is," said Rev. John Paul Brown. "We trusted him. We did not look for him to turn on us."

Former School Board Chairman Hillery Douglas suggested the community "buy back Sen. Ford" from the tax credit lobbiests who have supported him with campaign contributions.

The Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the local NAACP chapter, said that, in a backwards way, he was grateful to Ford for galvanizing a community that had grown complacent as the movement toward tax credits slowed in Statehouse circles over the years.

"He's brought us together," Darby said. "Across lines of community, race, class, and agenda, so we can stand with one voice and say that we do not support Sen. Ford and his quest to strengthen private schools."

The NAACP is encouraging Ford to call a public meeting and ask community members what they think of the tax credit propasal.

"Talk to the people, so that those citizens united here for public education can also educate you," Darby said.

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Greg Hambrick
News Editor

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