Crowded Bluffton middle schools to be discussed again today by school board

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comApril 16, 2013 

The Beaufort County Board of Education meets at 6 p.m. today in the Bluffton library to decide what to do about Bluffton middle school crowding.

The school board remained divided Friday over a recommendation to install modular classrooms at Bluffton High School and move ninth-graders to the high school this fall as a short-term solution to crowding at Bluffton and H.E. McCracken middle schools.

A majority of the board seemed to favor taking more time to reach a long-term plan, despite protests from other board members.

Board member Geri Kinton of Beaufort joined JoAnn Orischak of Hilton Head Island in stressing the importance of making a decision that would complement long-term plans to handle enrollment growth, despite comments from a committee that studied the issue saying the moves would not interfere with those plans.

The board postponed a decision March 5 to change middle and high school grade configurations until after a two-day work session that began Friday and included discussion of a five-year strategic plan and input from incoming superintendent Jeffrey Moss.

But after nearly two hours of deliberations, the result was the same -- a close split in favor of waiting another year to make changes.

"The community has had it with short-term fixes and is looking for something that is longer and well-thought-out," Orischak said at the Friday meeting.

Fellow Hilton Head board member Mike Sanz contended that crowding is not an immediate problem at the high school or McCracken Middle, and space constraints at Bluffton Middle could be resolved by relocating lockers that occupy several classrooms. District officials, however, said the school's halls are too narrow to accommodate the lockers and meet state building standards.

The Bluffton Community Committee recommended the district spend an estimated $2 million to install the modular classrooms at Bluffton High, which would allow the two middle schools to 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 and was only meant to last two years. But now the middle schools are cramped.

The board charged the committee with bringing it a short-term recommendation in March and a long-term recommendation in May.

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

The recommended grade configurations would buy the middle schools three to four years before they reach capacity, he said. That would give the district time to construct a new middle school by 2016 and a new high school in 2018, Dievendorf has told the board. Postponement would delay that plan by a year, he said.

Additionally, the recommendation merely affirms what the board decided to do in 2011. Since then, though, the board has a new makeup after last November's elections.

"It is an operable, good solution, and putting it off makes the problem worse. There's no place to put these kids," board member Paul Roth of Okatie said at the Friday meeting.

The board will also vote today on a recommendation from an ad hoc curriculum committee to change math sequencing at middle schools and naming of adjunct facilities at Hilton Head Island High School before meeting with school improvement councils for "an open discussion."

Check back with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette for a full story after tonight's meeting and follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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