District, board must take hard look at enrollments

September 26, 2010 

No doubt the recent economic meltdown upset the best laid plans of many organizations.

All the more reason for the Beaufort County School District to look at where and how many students attend our public schools, with an eye toward closing unneeded ones. The school board can't complain about not having enough money to spend if it doesn't explore this potentially significant cost-cutting measure.

At its meeting Tuesday, the board voted 10-0 to direct staff to prepare a report that details the enrollment of each county school and its capacity. Joan Deery, who prompted the action, says the board must address the number of empty seats, particularly as it faces a budget shortfall.

Enrollment figures as of Friday show the district has 6,664 empty seats in its 32 schools; 4,394 of those seats are in northern Beaufort County. (That doesn't include the 304 students at Riverview Charter School, who are housed in a district-owned building.) In southern Beaufort County, 2,250 seats are empty, with 1,470 of those seats in Bluffton schools.

Most of the extra capacity is found in the middle and elementary schools -- a total of 3,533 seats in northern Beaufort County schools and 1,727 in southern Beaufort County schools.

Surely, some schools or wings of schools can be closed -- with minimum maintenance upkeep and large cost savings -- until we need them.

Certainly, the recession has had an impact on what had been the fast-growing Bluffton area, where children filled row after row of mobile classrooms.

Two new schools opened this year, Bluffton Middle and Pritchardville Elementary schools. Red Cedar Elementary opened last year. Their opening and the opening of two early childhood education centers at Bluffton Elementary and M.C. Riley Elementary emptied out those mobile classrooms. After years of overcrowding, it was good to see those trailers go. When the economy picks up again, southern Beaufort County most likely will be a growth area.

But school officials have been on notice since at least 2007, before construction began for the Whale Branch Early College High School, that there was declining enrollment in northern Beaufort County schools.

Consultant Kelley Carey reported then that all but three of the 17 schools in northern Beaufort County, including Battery Creek High School and Whale Branch Middle School, would be under capacity by 2011. Growth, he said, was unlikely in that area for years to come.

Based on Friday's enrollment figures, he is very close to being proved right. Only Beaufort High (29 students) and Coosa Elementary (21 students) report enrollment over capacity. The four schools most underutiilzed are Battery Creek (641 students under capacity); Robert Smalls Middle School (590 students under capacity); Whale Branch Middle School (536 students under capacity); and St. Helena Elementary and Early Childhood Center (522 students under capacity).

Carey advised against including a north-area high school in the district's 2000 bond referendum. And in 2009 said of the decision to go ahead with its construction, "In all my years, I've never seen such an overtly bad project go forward."

The 650-student Whale Branch school, which opened this fall, reports an enrollment of 401 students. The three north-county high schools report 861 fewer students than their stated capacity.

If the board found it hard to say no to the Whale Branch high school, with all of the emotion-laden debates it engendered, just think what might lie ahead.

But board members must set aside such arguments this time. They must not let race and calls to right past injustices dictate what should be largely financial and data-driven decisions.

Part of the analysis ahead will require looking at specific programs in the schools and what space they need. School officials have long said that physical capacity numbers don't always reflect the programs going on inside the schools and the space required for them. Head Start programs are housed at James J. Davis and Beaufort elementary schools, district officials point out. Beaufort Elementary and Red Cedar Elementary also housearea classes for special education.

But they must weigh the efficacy of programs as they weigh whether some schools should be closed. And they must take into account the impact of Riverview Charter School and future charter schools.

This exercise won't be easy, but it is necessary, especially if the school board wants to maintain any credibility on operating and construction budgets.

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service