Bridges partnership with firm to build new school dissolves

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comMay 24, 2014 

A partnership that would have allowed Bridges Preparatory School to make the Beaufort Boys & Girls Club its permanent home has dissolved.

HighMark School Development, a company that specializes in buying and redeveloping locations for charter schools, planned to close on the 1.22-acre property Monday and begin construction to expand the club's building on Boundary Street.

However, just days before, on May 15, the school's board voted down the final agreement. That vote dissolved a nearly two-year partnership and months of planning, said Mark Skousen, HighMark's vice president of marketing.

"There was a little surprise, because we had been working with this group for almost two years, when Bridges was just an idea, and this was the final step," Skousen said.

Bridges opened this school year -- under a state charter -- in the Boys & Girls Club. At the time, the school characterized the building as its temporary home.

Bridges board chairman John Payne refused to comment Friday, saying the minutes from the board's meeting had not yet been approved. According to the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, meeting minutes become a matter of public record when they are recorded, not when approved.

Bridges officials hope they can still make plans for a permanent home happen without HighMark. The school asked the Beaufort County Capital Project Sales Tax Commission on Monday for nearly $7 million for the project.

DEAL DISSOLUTION

In December, HighMark signed a purchase agreement with the Boys & Girls Club of the Lowcountry on Bridges' behalf. The purchase price was about $1 million, Chris Protz, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of the Lowcountry, has said.

The company also would have financed the renovations and construction to expand the building for Bridges.

A letter of intent defined the business terms, interest rates, project costs and building plans, Skousen said.

The deal is "a match made in heaven," Bridges board vice chairman Charlie Calvert said at the time. Attempts Thursday to reach Calvert for comment were unsuccessful.

Skousen said he was not given a reason for the board's decision to reject the agreement before the deal closed, but that the terms of the agreement had not changed since the letter of intent was signed.

Although HighMark assured the board the school was financially sound, Skousen said the board might have had concerns it could not afford the payments in light of a possible decrease in state funding.

According to the letter of intent, Bridges must pay HighMark $50,000 for the services rendered to date, company spokesman Patrick Beausoleil said.

MOVING FORWARD

The school, which holds classes in both the Boys & Girls Club and at the Charles Lind Activity Center less than a mile away, still wants to purchase and renovate the club.

In a pitch to the county tax commission Monday, Calvert said the school is putting up $1.4 million to purchase the Boys & Girls Club building. This will be paid for with "cash flow from a successful year," according to the presentation.

Bridges is requesting $6.8 million from Beaufort County to be funded by a proposed 1 percent sales tax, according to commission member Scott Richardson. That would help fund renovations and construction of an additional building to accommodate growing enrollment.

The school has 358 students in grades kindergarten through sixth. It plans to add a grade each year up to 12th grade, so that it will serve 780 students by 2018.

Calvert said Monday the school could not secure a loan until it has been open three to five years. Receiving public money could also help it save several million dollars in interest, allowing it to spend more on classroom needs.

Richardson said the school might reinvigorate historic Beaufort and create jobs.

However, the list of funding requests for the proposed sales tax exceeds the amount expected to be raised, assuming a plan is put before voters in the fall election and that it passes.

The tax commission has until the beginning of June to create a list of projects, and County Council must approve proposals by Aug. 15 if the sales-tax measure is to go before voters in November.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

Related content:

Bridges Prep to buy Boys & Girls Club site, build permanent school, December 18, 2013

Report: SC charter schools have inadequate access to facilities, amenities, November 17, 2013

Beaufort County groups eye another $95 million in capital projects, May 19, 2014

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