Parents have questions but voice support for proposed new Bluffton schools

sbowman@islandpacket.comSeptember 10, 2013 

  • By the numbers

    Several Bluffton schools are already above capacity or are projected to be by 2018.

    Bluffton Middle School: As of day 15 of this school year, Bluffton Middle is 39 students above its 1,035-student capacity and is forecast to grow to 1,312 students by 2018.

    H.E. McCracken Middle School: As of day 15 of this school year, H.E. McCracken is 81 students above its 909-student capacity and is forecast to grow to 1,533 by 2018.

    Bluffton High School: As of day 15 of this school year, Bluffton High is 247 students below its 1,434-student capacity and is forecast to grow to 1,621 students by 2018.

Parents, community members and school staff crowded into the Bluffton High School auditorium Tuesday night to discuss a problem -- school overcrowding.

At a special Beaufort County Board of Education meeting, they raised questions and concerns about a recent proposal by superintendent Jeffrey Moss to build two new "schools of choice" aimed at tackling the problem.

While parents agreed something needs to be done about the growing number of students in the Bluffton area, they wanted more information about how spots for the proposed schools would be determined, as well as on transportation and involvement in extracurricular activities.

Moss has created a tentative but fast-paced schedule with the projects being awarded to architects in November, bids awarded in May and construction beginning in June, with a completion date of December 2015.

To keep to that schedule, Board Chairman Bill Evans said the panel will hold a public meeting Sept. 24 to discuss the schools in depth. Members are expected to decide on the proposal at their Oct. 1 meeting.

While praising the questions raised at Tuesday's hearing, board member Laura Bush, who represents parts of Bluffton, said the board needs more community input.

"This area is growing rapidly; there is no slowing down," she said. "This may be the solution -- I'm not affirming it is -- but it's the best one we have on the table right now. But we need to hear from the community."

THE FEEDBACK

About 50 people attended the meeting, and many asked the superintendent questions.

There were concerns over how the lottery system for the choice schools would work and what transportation would be provided.

Moss said there are many lottery systems to choose from, but said he wants to keep a balance in terms of racial composition. He said Bluffton students would get priority, followed by Hilton Head. Other areas would get the remaining spots.

He said students would return to their home campuses for extracurricular activities such as athletics, theater and band. His recommendation was that transportation be provided from the new schools to the area schools for those students.

Parent Jennifer Martin, whose son is at Bluffton Middle School, expressed concern over how many times her son has moved between schools due to overcrowding.

"My thoughts are they should have planned for this, and there are still some things to work out," Martin said. "But I think it's a really good opportunity for the kids, and I'm a little worried it will be very popular and hard to get into."

Despite the questions, many parents said they were happy about the options the proposal offered.

"Just from the questioning and feedback, it appeared the parents and community were embracing the concept," Moss said. "So I'm leaving with a positive attitude for the proposal."

THE PROPOSAL

Moss proposed a new elementary school to serve kindergarten through eighth grade and a new combination middle-high school to serve grades six through 12.

Both would be "schools of choice," where students could attend regardless of their attendance zones. Preference would be given to Bluffton-area students.

The curricula would be driven by parents and the community. He has suggested curriculum options such as a Montessori model for the elementary school and a focus on STEM -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics -- as well as college- and career-ready programs for older students.

The district already owns the property that could be used for both schools, and Moss said a tax increase would not be required to build them.

The district has about $25 million from a 2008 bond issue to build a school on Davis Road to accommodate about 800 kindergartners through eighth-graders. However, Moss said he suspects the building would cost only $13 to $18 million.

The second school, on property in the New Riverside development in Pritchardville, would have the capacity for about 1,400 sixth- through 12th-graders. The district would pay for the school, estimated to cost $25 million, by borrowing money. The district is allowed to borrow up to 8 percent of a county's total assessed property value each year.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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