Still questions to answer on Bluffton school plan

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 15, 2013 

Deciding when to build schools can be even more difficult than deciding where.

Do you wait until schools are at or over capacity? Until rows of mobile classrooms line the school campus? Do you get out ahead of those two scenarios and build sooner rather than later?

Over the years, we've seen all of the above in the Beaufort County School District.

The "crisis" today is in southern Beaufort County. No surprise there given growth patterns in the past decade. Bluffton's two middle schools have more students than they were built to accommodate. Red Cedar, Pritchardville and Okatie elementary schools are at 90 percent capacity or higher. Hilton Head Island High School and Middle School are each at more than 90 percent of capacity. The Hilton Head Early Childhood Center is over its capacity.

What to do about the Bluffton schools has been an issue since 2010. That year, the board came up with a plan that sent sixth- and seventh-graders to Bluffton Middle School and eighth- and ninth-graders to H.E. McCracken Middle School. Bluffton Middle School, then under construction was expanded from 800 students to 1,100 students. The moves freed up space in Bluffton High, which has room for 1,434 students. Right now, it has 1,187 students, but no ninth-graders.

The district predicted this would be a short-term solution; trouble would come again by the 2013-2014 school year. And here we are.

Unfortunately, we had only a brief flurry of school board activity to address this problem last spring. The board rejected using a committee's short-term option in favor of a longer view.

Enter superintendent Jeffrey Moss, who has come up with a plan to build two new "choice" schools in the Bluffton area and open them up to students across the county, giving preference to Bluffton and Hilton Head students.

In a nutshell, it would:

  • Build a new 6-12 school in the New Riverside area that would accommodate 1,400 students.

  • Build a new K-8 school near S.C. 170 and Bluffton Parkway that would accommodate 800 students.

  • Return Bluffton Middle and H.E. McCracken to a 6-8 configuration and Bluffton High to a 9-12 configuration.

  • The plan has some things going for it. The district already owns the property where the schools would be built. It has $25 million in hand to build an elementary school from a previous school bond referendum. It can borrow another $25 million without having to go to voters and without requiring a tax increase.

    It would use parent- and community-driven programs, such as Montessori, a math and science focus and college-credit and career-ready courses, to attract students to the schools. An example of a choice school attracting students is Whale Branch Early College High School. The 533-student school is a few students over capacity this year, according to the district's 15-day enrollment report. The fact that Whale Branch Middle School is at 44 percent capacity, with 382 students, suggests the high school is attracting students from beyond the immediate area. No other middle school feeds into it.

    But here are some issues that haven't been adequately addressed:

  • Why "choice" schools? That suggests the district couldn't fill the schools with resident students, at least not in the near future.

  • How do you guarantee that enough students from crowded schools go to the new schools to free up needed space?

  • What will it cost to transport students to these schools, potentially from across the county? Does the district pay?

  • What are the logistics of students participating in extracurricular activities at their "home schools"?

  • What is the district's debt capacity for "8 percent" borrowing? The district can borrow up to 8 percent of the value of its tax base without asking voters' permission.

  • What projects might be set aside or delayed because 8 percent money isn't available?

  • What else might the district do? Have district officials looked at changing attendance zones? Battery Creek High is at 52 percent of its 1,505-student capacity. Robert Smalls Middle School is at 57 percent of its 1,087-student capacity.

  • This plan is on a very fast track. Moss presented it to the school board Aug. 20; a public meeting was held Tuesday in Bluffton.

    Moss' schedule calls for selecting an architect in November; bidding out the construction in May; and starting construction in June, with a 14- to 18-month building schedule.

    That requires a relatively quick decision from the school board. Perhaps they're ready to make that decision. Is the community ready?

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