Board to revisit Beaufort County school zones

March 14, 2011 

  • The Beaufort County Board of Education will meet for a full-day work session Saturday to discuss school attendance zones and related issues. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the central school district office, 2900 Mink Point Blvd., Beaufort. Board members will arrive at 8:30 a.m. for networking.

The Beaufort County Board of Education will spend Saturday pondering one of its most controversial issues in recent years: Changes to school-attendance boundaries.

Chairman Fred Washington Jr. said the full-day work session will be devoted to discussions of attendance zones and related issues, such as transfer policies that allow students to attend schools outside their zones.

He encourages residents to attend the public meeting to review information and listen to the board's debate.

"It's not going to be an easy meeting," Washington said. "But hopefully we'll make some decisions that are good for the district and good for the community."

Washington said the board will hear about the history and background of rezoning, as well as data related to enrollment, building capacities and student transfers. He hopes the board leaves with a plan for how to proceed.

Plans for balancing enrollment among the county's public schools -- particularly among its five high schools -- have created controversy in the past year.

District data show the county's about 30 public schools have more than 6,000 empty seats, but excess space isn't distributed evenly. Some schools -- such as Beaufort High and Coosa Elementary -- are over capacity, while others have hundreds of unused seats.

A contentious debate on high school rezoning ended in March 2010 with the board voting to move all students in the Beaufort Elementary zone from Beaufort High to Battery Creek. The vote, however, included a provision allowing any student in the Beaufort Elementary zone who already attends Beaufort High to remain there. That option also was available for rising ninth-graders.

The board had considered broader options that would have more evenly distributed enrollment among the district's five high schools, but it backed off after residents protested.

As a result, Beaufort High remains filled to capacity this year, serving more than 1,600 students in a building designed for 1,595, according to district data.

The two other high schools in northern Beaufort County -- Battery Creek High and Whale Branch Early College High School -- are under capacity. Battery Creek serves about 850 students in a building configured for 1,505. Whale Branch serves 400 students and has a capacity of 611.

That reignited the debate this fall, and the board considered a proposal to reassign students from the Port Royal and Mossy Oaks areas to Battery Creek.

Dozens of parents spoke against the idea at community meetings. Some advocated changing the grade configurations of schools in the Beaufort cluster to avoid moving students from Beaufort High. For instance, some parents suggested ninth-graders could be kept at middle schools with extra space.

That idea is in line with a decision the board made last year to change grade configurations -- instead of attendance zones -- in the Bluffton area to alleviate overcrowding at Bluffton High School. The district assigns Bluffton's sixth- and seventh-graders to Bluffton Middle School and eighth- and ninth-graders to H.E. McCracken Middle School. Those students move to the high school as sophomores.

Washington said district administrators and county officials are discussing ways to televise Saturday's meeting through the County Channel.

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