As the new year begins, we take a look back at some of the top news stories in western York County for 2013. Some of these stories will continue to be news for the area in 2014.
Parents protest York school budget cuts
When the York school board made the decision early in 2013 to balance its budget with $1.9 million in budget cuts, including the loss of 22 positions, York parents showed up to protest.
A group of parents showed up at two school board meetings in May and June, asking the board to protect art, media and in-school suspension programs at elementary schools from the cuts.
The cuts “will dismantle these essential programs,” organizer Alicia Bolin told York school board members in May. “Our district is moving backwards and eliminating teachers. Whether it’s through attrition or budget cuts, this is unacceptable.”
The York school board in February approved a plan to cut 22 positions and reduce the number of work days for about 20 other administrators and staff to cut about $1.9 million in costs for the coming school year.
The cuts at elementary schools included two art and music teaching positions, five in-school suspension assistants, five media assistants and two instructional coaches.
Cuts at the middle and high school level included an instructional coach, two teacher assistants, a high school administrator, guidance counselor, media specialist and an ROTC position. Part-time French and masonry teaching positions also were eliminated.
Bolin told the school board that elimination of elementary school media assistants will force the library to go to a fixed schedule. She said that reading and writing test scores improve with a fully staffed library and with the integration of art.
In addition, she said the elementary in-school suspension program is important to remove disruptive children from the classroom.
Superintendent Vernon Prosser said the district has used money from a reserve fund to balance its budget for about three years, hoping the economy would improve and the cuts could be avoided. For the 2012-13 school year, the district used about $1.5 million in reserves.
He said the $6.2 million reserve fund – down from $9.2 million five years ago – now amounts to about 17 percent of general fund expenditures. He said good financial management calls for school districts to keep a reserve that’s about 20 percent of its general fund.
Clover’s field of dreams
The town of Clover christened its own field of dreams in September, when hundreds of young soccer players with parents and coaches showed up to play the first games at Clover’s 50-acre New Centre Park.
Mayor Donnie Grice likened the park’s development to the 1989 Kevin Costner movie, “Field of Dreams,” which includes the line: “If you build it, they will come.”
“This park has sort of been like that,” Grice said of the movie, in which an Iowa farmer has a vision that inspires him to build a baseball diamond in a cornfield. “Everyone thought we were crazy when we said we were going to build a park on solid rock.”
But Grice said town officials refused to give up in making their dream for the park happen. The town hauled in truckloads of soil to create fields over the rock, and had to blast through the rock to set the lighting.
After the dedication, all of Clover’s 26 soccer teams, which includes about 250 children, played games on the fields. Said Grice: “I hope all of us will be able to enjoy this park for many years to come.”
Plans call for the park to be developed in phases. The first phase cost about $1.7 million and includes three lighted soccer fields and one unlighted field, a brick concession stand and public restrooms, the parking area and the park infrastructure.
Plans for future phases of the park include a splash pad, amphitheater, walking trails, picnic shelters, outdoor basketball, sand volleyball and tennis courts, a disc golf course and a “miracle field,” which is a special type of baseball field for people with disabilities.
Construction began in the spring of 2012, after the town awarded the project to Cherryville, N.C.,-based Beam Construction.
The name New Centre Park was inspired by a now-defunct community named New Centre that developed south of Clover. The community disappeared after the Civil War, but town officials liked the name because it fits plans to promote the park as a new center of activity.
York begins buying water from Rock Hill
After more than a decade of talks about its insufficient and sometimes poor quality water, York quietly started buying water from Rock Hill in late October. Plans call for the city to eventually phase out and tear down its own water treatment plant.
York City Manager Charles Helms said the city began purchasing 500,000 gallons of water each day from Rock Hill, under an agreement approved by both cities in March 2012.
Under the 20-year agreement, York will move toward purchasing all its water from Rock Hill – about 1.5 million gallons a day – during the next seven years, Helms said.
Helms and York Mayor Eddie Lee said the water deal is important because it means residents can count on a reliable, high-quality source of water for the foreseeable future.
“We have to have a dependable water source,” Lee said.
Since the 1950s, York has gotten water from Lake Caldwell, a small reservoir west of York where the water runs low during droughts. In 2002, the city was facing a critical shortage of water, which prompted it to begin exploring other options.
Helms also said York’s water has sometimes been discolored by iron and magnesium, especially in the spring and fall. He said the city’s water treatment plant, built in 1926, is in need of significant updates.
“I think everybody will see a change in the quality of water,” Helms said.
Helms said residents may not notice an immediate change. But he said they may notice a gradual improvement in water quality and consistency, as York steps up the amount of water it purchases from Rock Hill.
Since the water deal was signed with Rock Hill in 2012, York has been building a $1.5 million pump station and ground storage tank at S.C. 161 and North Shiloh Road, which is needed to move the water from Rock Hill, which is at a lower elevation than York.
Helms said he does not foresee any immediate changes in water rates paid by York customers. Under the agreement, Rock Hill agreed to charge York the same rate for water as it charges its own residents – $1.42 per 1,000 gallons.
Connected classrooms in Clover
Clover School District’s Connected Classroom pilot program – which is expected to segue into putting either iPads or MacBook Air laptops in the hands of every student by fall 2014 – launched in September. The first delivery was 24 iPads in Jeremy Eller’s fourth-grade math and science class at Kinard Elementary School.
A few weeks later, the Clover school board approved a three-year, $4.2 million investment in the initiative, under a lease-purchase agreement with Apple that includes a full-time training specialist for a year.
After the first three years, the project will be renewed if it’s successful, finance director Ken Love said. “We’re committing to a long-term philosophy of using this technology as a teaching tool,” Love said.
Superintendent Marc Sosne said Connected Classroom will change the way instruction looks in Clover schools. “As of August 2014, every teacher in the district will have been trained in the one-to-one instruction model,” Sosne said.
Classroom instruction, he said, will “be very different than it is right now. Every student will have a device on their desk or in their lap and can work independently...”
“The face of our instruction will be very different,” he said. However, Sosne added that students won’t just be looking at computers.
“When it is done well, you will see a lot of collaborative learning,” he said. “We will see a lot of students working together on projects. And that is our goal, to be one of those lighthouse districts that does it better than everyone else.”
The project was piloted in the fall of 2013, with 33 teachers who applied to begin using the devices and about 1,000 students.
Stacy’s Garden Center closes
Longtime customers of Stacy’s Garden Center on U.S. 321 between York and Clover lamented the retail center’s closing in early November after 39 years.
Metrolina Greenhouses of Huntersville, N.C., which bought the entire Stacy’s operation, closed the garden center, though it continues to operate the wholesale business.
Metrolina said stand-alone garden centers are more difficult to operate because of competition. But the closing was bad news for many Stacy’s patrons, and the business had a long history in the area.
Stacy’s founder Louis Stacy Jr. was the driving force behind the garden center and the wholesale business that he built beginning in 1968 with sister Linda Koon and their parents, the late Ruby and Louis Stacy Sr.
Louis Sr. was a farmer and carpenter, who helped his son build the first greenhouse with windows from a local zipper plant. The family sold tomato plants and other items from the greenhouse, Koon said, netting about $1,500 the first year.
The operation expanded and added the retail center, which was managed by Koon. “I did not know a marigold from a petunia,” she said of the early days. “Customers would walk in and say, I would like a dozen petunias and I would say, show them to me and I’ll sell them to you.”
At its largest, Stacy’s included about 250 acres, most of it used for the wholesale operation, which was divided into three separate farms. It raised flowers, trees and shrubs and sold them to garden centers in 26 states.
In recent years, Koon said, Stacy’s business was hurt by the economy and by weather. When Stacy’s entered bankruptcy in May, the company went up for bid, and Metrolina purchased the company.
Metrolina combined the two companies, while maintaining Stacy’s workforce. All Stacy’s employees were offered jobs with Metrolina.
Julia Phillips convicted
The long saga that began with the 2010 strangling death of former York mayor Melvin Roberts came to a close in September, when his girlfriend Julia Phillips was found guilty of his murder.
After seven days of testimony from witnesses, experts, friends and even a black-market plastic surgeon, it took nearly four hours for the jury to decide that Phillips, 69, conspired with an unknown accomplice to kill Roberts, who had practiced law in York for 55 years.
Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole sentenced Phillips to life in prison without parole.
In a brief address to the court, Phillips proclaimed her faith in God and her plans to keep Roberts’ family in her prayers. She did not admit to participating in his death, saying she hopes the real killer is found.
Roberts was 79 when police found him dead in his driveway on Feb. 4, 2010 – Phillips’ birthday. He had been strangled with a zip tie.
During the trial, prosecutors played hours of recorded police interviews with Phillips. Jurors cited inconsistencies in Phillips’ story as a factor in their decision to convict.
Detectives said the duct tape they found on her the night of the killing didn’t appear to have been wrapped tightly. Phillips described for police several events of the evening, despite having claimed that her eyes had been covered by the duct tape.
Testimony from Guy Blankenship – a confidential police informant, admitted thief and black-market plastic surgeon – that Phillips had offered him $10,000 to kill Roberts, also bolstered the prosecution’s case.
Phillips claimed she had been ambushed by a Hispanic attacker who demanded money as he wrapped her head, neck, wrists and ankles in duct tape and dragged her behind a brick wall some 60 feet away from the driveway of Roberts’ house in York.
That alleged assailant then hit Roberts’ head with a metal pipe before firing a single gunshot, Phillips told authorities.
Police determined that her story about an attacker was a hoax. At least 12 statements she gave to police were inconsistent, presenting conflicting accounts of the night’s events.
While interviewing her, detectives noticed her clothes were not wet, though she claimed to have been pushed face-down in mud. Police also found gunshot residue on her clothes, though she claimed not to have fired a gun in years.
Others said Phillips changed her attacker’s physical and racial description several times.
Prosecutors said Phillips grew greedy and desperate when she realized Roberts planned to end their decade-long relationship. Testimony showed Roberts paid all of Phillips’ utilities, health insurance and trips to beach houses and lawyer conventions. She stood to inherit $150,000 worth of property from Roberts’ will.
Roberts’ longtime friends and former employees testified that his relationship with Phillips was on “rocky” ground shortly before his death.
Police believe Phillips worked with someone else to kill Roberts. However, Phillips is the only person to have been charged in the murder.
Clover school bond referendum set
The Clover school board moved forward with a plan to build new schools in November, when it approved a March 22 bond referendum. Voters will be asked to OK borrowing $67 million for five projects, including two new schools and an aquatic/fitness center.
Five construction projects that would be funded by the bond total $99 million, which is a little higher than initially discussed. However, the district plans to put down $32 million in “seed money,” reducing the amount it would need to borrow.
Superintendent Marc Sosne said the cost of the total construction package is higher in part because construction costs are beginning to rise. He also said the district tried to make its estimates as accurate as possible by including smaller costs such as fees.
The projects and estimated costs are:
• $38.5 million for a new middle school on Barrett Road in Clover, to replace Clover Middle School.
• $23.5 million for a new elementary school on about 35 acres on Oakridge Road in Lake Wylie, across from Oakridge Middle School.
• $14 million for an aquatics and fitness center on the north side of Crowders Creek Elementary School on S.C. 274 in the Lake Wylie area.
Sosne said the school district would build the center and the Upper Palmetto YMCA would operate it. The district would use it for elementary school swimming classes and swim team events. He said YMCA officials have said a fitness and aquatics center is more financially viable to operate than an aquatics center alone.
• $9.7 million for renovations to Clover Middle School, which would be transformed into a ninth grade academy for Clover High School. This would expand the capacity of the high school to about 3,400 students and delay the need for a second high school.
• $5.9 million for renovations and artificial turf for Clover’s Memorial Stadium and turf at two other fields, at Clover High and existing Clover Middle School.
The balance includes $7.4 million for furnishings, equipment, landscaping and other costs.
A bond steering committee composed of community members will begin informational presentations to the community on the bond referendum in January.
York residents oppose car lot in historic district
When a York business owner proposed opening a used car lot on his property in the heart of the city’s historic district, residents protested.
The owner, York native Jerry Benfield, who runs a bail bond and construction business on his 3.5-acre parcel at 14 Cemetery St., between Wright Funeral Home and historic Rose Hill Cemetery, had sought approval for the car lot from York’s historical commission.
The property was zoned general industrial, under which car lots are a permitted use. However, residents argued the lot would be inappropriate and would devalue their historic homes.
“There’s no way of dressing up a used car lot to make it appropriate in an historic district,” said Gary Gross, a Yorkville Historical Society member who lives in an historic home on East Liberty Street.
Gross and other residents presented a petition with more than 500 signatures in opposition to Benfield’s plan.
After listening to Gross, several other opponents and Benfield, council members unanimously approved a 180-day rezoning of the East Liberty Street property from general industrial to residential.
“We’re going to protect our historic district,” York Mayor Eddie Lee told Benfield. “The council has an obligation to protect its citizens and its people.”
The zoning change is expected to go the city’s planning commission for review before returning to the council for a second vote, probably early in 2014.
After the meeting, Benfield filed a police report against Lee, accusing the mayor of bullying him during the packed council meeting. Lee, 60, took issue with a bullying comment the 37-year-old Benfield made during the meeting.
According to Benfield, Lee made a comment that was “something like ... ‘I’m not being a bully, but if you would like to step outside, I can show you what a bully I can be,’” the report states.
Several council members urged Benfield to talk with the city in hopes of resolving the issue. However, Benfield said he would not talk with Lee because the mayor had publicly stated before the meeting that the car lot would not happen.
Clover High School adds lacrosse
The Clover Blue Eagles became the latest York County high school to field a lacrosse team when the sport made its debut at Memorial Stadium in February.
The first-ever storming the field included a celebration of a 9-2 conquest of visiting Nation Ford.
Clover High fielded boys’ and girls’ JV lacrosse teams in the school’s debut season, with players from seventh through 10th grades. In the 2013-14 school year, Clover expects to add the 11th grade; the first varsity team will start in two years.
Team captain Riley Crysler and others were all smiles after the win over Nation Ford. “Lacrosse is more fast-paced than soccer,” said Crysler. “It has more of an offensive flow. I love the sport.”
Coach Matt Lindner compared the sport to basketball. “You play offense, play defense and score,” he said. “Instead of basketball’s breaks and transitions, it’s clears and rides in our sport.”
Carroll Hester, Clover High athletic director, said interest is growing. “There are a good many kids showing an interest in the sport and participating in club lacrosse.”
Jennifer Becknell • 803-329-4077