School traffic causes headaches for Beaufort neighborhood

emoody@beaufortgazette.comSeptember 30, 2012 

Lisa Reynolds, a peer lab assistant at Beaufort Elementary School, directs traffic Thursday afternoon as parents wait to pick up their students after school at the intersection of Pilot and King streets.

DELAYNA EARLEY THE BEAUFORT GAZE

Judy Divine-Hunt doesn't have school-age children, but she has to plan her life around the Beaufort Elementary School bell.

Traffic backs up during drop-off and pick-up at the school, blocking her driveway for an hour each time and making life aggravating, she said.

"It's the worst traffic mess I've ever seen, and I've never seen it this bad until this year," she said. "... I can't even get out of my driveway. I don't even try to come home at pick-up time."

Hunt is one of several residents who brought their concerns to Tuesday's Beaufort City Council meeting after the city sent them letters asking their opinions on the possibility of on-street parking on Pilot Street, which borders the school on the west.

The Beaufort County School District and the city have been discussing the city taking ownership of the road because the S.C. Department of Transportation will not allow parking, facilities director Robert Oetting said. The school needs additional parking to better accommodate staff and visitors, he said.

But neighbor Yancy O'Kelley said she's been patrolling the parking lots and counting empty spaces. Her last count found 17, which she said indicated the issue is traffic, not parking.

"The safety of the children and the parents, I really think that is more pressing right now," she said.

Oetting said during Tuesday's meeting that about 800 students exit the school in a 25-minute period in the afternoons. School enrollment grew by about 100 students this year and the school is at about 80 percent capacity.

Hunt wants the school to be a better neighbor to residents. She thinks the district didn't plan well when it closed Mossy Oaks Elementary School last spring, and that the increased enrollment is a direct effect of that closure.

City police officer Sean Alford of the department's Neighborhood Enhancement Team said he spent four weeks monitoring traffic at the school. He said parents in a rush are not patient, and one almost hit a teacher. The traffic jam also forced an ambulance into incoming traffic because parents didn't leave enough room for it.

Fully opening Bladen Street, which is under construction and has been opened at intersections, could relieve some of the issues, Alford said.

Parent Daisy Hudson, of Hermitage Street, says she has taken to walking with her first-grade son because driving can mean an hour-long wait. She has had children at the school since 2005 and said she'd never seen traffic this bad.

Hudson is circulating a petition to put a crossing guard on North Street, across Ribaut Road, which she believes will encourage more people to walk. A crosswalk on King Street, across Pilot Street, could also help, she said.

"I saw several incidents where kids almost got hit because there is no crosswalk there," Hudson said.

Phyllis White, district chief of operations, said Tuesday was the first time the district had heard neighbors' complaints. Staff was already working to improve traffic flow, adding, for example, a "stacking lane" on Prince Street where parents can stop, pick up their children and leave. White said the lane would ease problems but that the district can only do so much because the state owns the roads surrounding the school.

A flier asking parents to follow pick-up and drop-off rules and drive safely has also been sent to parents, hand-delivered by the principal to waiting cars, referenced in voice messages to parents and posted on the school's website, district spokesman Jim Foster said.

Councilmen Mike Sutton and George O'Kelley Jr., who is Yancy O'Kelley's husband, said part of the problem is that Beaufort Elementary is a magnet school that draws students from beyond the neighborhood, who typically arrive by car.

"I want to be partner with the school board to make sure they get what they need to make sure the schools stay vibrant," Sutton said.

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