Beaufort, Jasper school districts work to determine future of ACE

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 23, 2014 

When it comes to the Academy for Career Excellence, Beaufort and Jasper schools officials have more questions than answers.

Who will be the school's new director? How much money will it take to make upgrades to the building in Okatie? Where will the money come from?

And perhaps most important: Will either the Beaufort County or Jasper County school districts be willing and able to pay it?

As those questions loom, so does the future of ACE, the joint venture to provide vocational education, Beaufort County School District officials say.

"Has ACE's mission, while very important, kind of served what it was designed to serve 30 years ago, and can we do better internally now?" asked Beaufort school board member Jim Beckert, who also serves on the ACE board.

Attempts last week to reach several Jasper County board members were unsuccessful.

The academy, created in 1977, offers 11 career and technology education programs, or CATE in educators' shorthand. The programs include agriculture, hospitality, construction and health science.

State Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, who is a member of both the Beaufort and Jasper legislative delegations, said he believes ACE has a strong mission and program.

But there is room for improvement, he said.

"I definitely think it's a good partnership," Herbkersman said. "But you have to look at it economically and whether it's best to maintain that program or start something else from scratch ... because things can start to have diminishing returns."

The Beaufort County School District would like to beef up the academy's CATE programs so students could graduate with professional licenses and certificates allowing them get jobs immediately, without more training.

But providing such programs would probably mean significant upgrades and expenses, according to Beaufort County superintendent Jeff Moss.

Even maintaining the status quo could be expensive. The Beaufort district is working on a report to determine how much it would take to renovate the ACE building and install various tools and equipment essential for issuing professional licenses, chief operational services officer Phyllis White said.

For example, the automotive technology program needs an exhaust removal system and proper battery-storage structure, among other requirements, according to the unfinished report.

The initial upgrade estimate is $7.2 million, she said. But that figure includes upgrades to only two of the school's programs, she said, so the amount is expected to grow.

And that raises another issue.

AN EQUAL SPLIT?

Legislation that created ACE says the cost of improvements is to be split equally between the counties. Jasper County superintendent Vashti Washington says ACE has been "a meaningful investment for the region," but she doesn't know where her district's half of the split would come from.

Beaufort school board Chairman Bill Evans said his district is committed to meeting its obligation, but some on the board have suggested Beaufort should do no more. In fact, board member Paul Roth went further -- he said recently that he thinks the money going to ACE could be better spent on similar programs housed in the district's own schools.

Underlying that sentiment are concerns about equitable funding and the school's leadership.

ACE seeks a new director after its most recent leader, Deonia Simmons, resigned earlier this year. A police investigation in to harassment at the school began shortly after his departure, but it ultimately was dropped.

Simmons' predecessor also resigned after internal investigations into financial and personnel concerns. As a result of its investigation, the academy's board fired one employee and reprimanded the director and then-assistant director for poor judgment.

The questions come as the Beaufort district seeks to expand academic choices within its own schools. Moss has said he would like to add CATE programs at a high school in northern Beaufort County and another in southern Beaufort County.

That could poise the district to go it alone on vocational education if it is no longer satisfied with its partnership with Jasper County.

The legislation that created ACE says the school can be dissolved by mutual consent or if one of the parties declines or fails to provide its part of necessary funds.

"We have an obligation to pursue this option because of our partnership with Jasper County, but we can also pursue the option within our own district at the same time," Evans said.

"If the first route doesn't get us anywhere and we can't get the improvements made for these students to be in the kind of environment we want them in," Evans added, "then we might have to pursue a different option to get them in that environment."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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