School board postpones decision to ease crowding at Bluffton middle schools

tbarton@islandpacket.comMarch 5, 2013 

The Beaufort County Board of Education postponed a decision Tuesday to change middle and high school grade configurations to address overcrowding at Bluffton middle schools.

The board voted 6-5 to delay a short-term solution until after a two-day April work session that will include discussion of a five-year strategic plan. The session will also likely include input from a new superintendent.

The Bluffton Community Committee recommended the district install modular classrooms at Bluffton High School, and move ninth-graders to the school this fall. That is expected to cost $2 million.

The recommendation, first presented to the board Thursday, is temporary solution to alleviate growing class sizes at Bluffton and H.E. McCracken middle schools.

The two middle schools would return to a sixth- through eighth-grade structure.

Currently sixth- and seventh-graders attend Bluffton Middle, and eighth- and ninth-graders attend McCracken. The change was made in 2011 as a temporary fix to crowding at Bluffton High School.

But now the middle schools are bursting at the seams.

DELAY QUESTIONED

Committee spokesman and Bluffton High School principal Mark Dievendorf said a delay would exacerbate the need for more space by 2016-17.

The recommended grade configurations would ease alignment of curriculum and buy the middle schools three to four years before they reach capacity, he said. That would give the district time to plan and construct a new middle school by 2016 with a high school to follow in 2018, Dievendorf said. Postponing would delay that plan by a year, he said.

Committee members and district officials stressed modular classrooms need to be ordered as soon as this week to be ready for next school year; waiting until April could be too late, they said.

Additionally, the recommendation merely affirms what the board decided in 2011. It later asked the committee to reanalyze enrollment with up-to-date projections.

"They need to make a decision and not wait and hold off," committee member and Okatie Elementary School Improvement Council chairwoman Emily Bierman said.

Board member Laura Bush, who voted against the motion, agreed.

"We are (kicking) the can down road," Bush said after the meeting. "... We said two years ago we were going to make that move. Nothing has changed except for the fact we've grown more. It makes the situation more critical."

Board member Geri Kinton -- who made the motion to postpone -- disagrees.

She and other board members contend overcrowding is not an immediate problem at the high school or McCracken, and space constraints at Bluffton Middle could be resolved by relocating lockers that occupy several classrooms.

Kinton stressed the importance of making a decision that would complement long-term plans to handle enrollment growth, despite Dievendorf saying the moves would not interfere with those plans.

"I don't feel the board has 100 percent confidence in making the best-informed decision," Kinton said after the meeting. "If we're spending $2 million, we should be as close to 100 percent as possible."

IN OTHER ACTION

After hearing objections from Rose Hill parents, the board reaffirmed its 2011 decision to assign students from three neighborhoods - Rose Hill, Old Carolina and Buck Island Road - to Bluffton Elementary School beginning next school year, .

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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