Talk of closing one of Beaufort County's public schools again has folks riled, this time in the town of Port Royal.
A task force that is identifying schools that might be shuttered or consolidated to save money recently put the town's elementary school at the top of its list. Task force members said its June 29 vote is not final and that it will meet again before making a presentation to the Beaufort County Board of Education on July 19.
Nonetheless, Port Royal Elementary supporters already are distributing flyers and speaking out at public meetings in defense of the 100-year-old school.
Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray said town officials are dedicated to making sure the preliminary recommendation "doesn't come to fruition."
Closing Port Royal Elementary would "destroy the fabric of the community," resident John Ellerbe said.
Located on Paris Avenue, Port Royal Elementary is the "ideal community school," said Susan Baisch of the School Improvement Council.
Facing budget shortfalls and a Beaufort County Council resistant to a tax increase, the board voted last September to consider closing some schools and asked for a report detailing the enrollment and capacity of each school. Beaufort County public schools are about 75 percent full, and schools have more than 6,000 empty seats, according to the report, prepared by district staff.
The report, delivered in November, proposed closing Shell Point Elementary, should a school need to be closed. However, parents there fought the proposal, and the board agreed to leave all schools open for another year.
But the board voted in May to compile another list of schools that could be closed for the 2012-13 school year, this time using a task force and seeking more public input.
Shell Point Elementary was No. 2 on the task force's preliminary list and Port Royal, which serves about 300 students in preschool through fifth grade, was No. 1.
Closing Shell Point would save $890,600 per year, according to the task force and the district's earlier analysis.
The task force estimates closing Port Royal Elementary would save about $789,000 a year.
However, that figure doesn't include about $85,000 of additional money the district would have to spend to bus Port Royal students to another school. Only about 25 Port Royal Elementary students take a bus to school, Baisch said, and students walk when taking field trips to the nearby post office, fire headquarters and YMCA.
If Port Royal Elementary closes, students would be bused to Mossy Oaks Elementary, and students there would in turn have to be transferred to Beaufort Elementary to avoid overcrowding, according to task force documents.
The task force is made up of one School Improvement Council representative, one principal and one community representative from each of the district's five school clusters: Battery Creek, Beaufort, Bluffton, Hilton Head and Whale Branch.
The majority of empty seats in northern Beaufort County are in the Battery Creek and Whale Branch clusters, Baisch said. Closing Port Royal Elementary would do "absolutely nothing to deal with those empty seats," she added.
Task force member and Bluffton cluster representative Emily Bierman said a Port Royal Elementary closure was deemed the least disruptive option because it has fewer students than Shell Point's 419. If Shell Point were closed, students would need to be redistributed among three other schools.
The school's 1910 deed stipulates that the building would become property of the town of Port Royal if it is no longer used as a school, according to town manager Van Willis. If the school district no longer owned the building, it wouldn't have to pay maintenance costs, Bierman said.
"So far, nothing is set in stone," she added.
Task force members evaluated all schools in the district and looked closely at a list of eight possible targets released in late May.
Board of Education member Bill Evans said the outcry is understandable and expected.
"Nobody wants that disruption," he said. "Everybody thinks their school is the best, and we have lots of good schools."
However, he said he's more concerned about the entire district and wants to avoid making cuts every year such as the recent action to eliminate literacy, math and science coaches' positions.
Evans said closing Port Royal Elementary, the district's smallest school besides Daufuskie Island Elementary, won't save as much money as other options and doesn't deal with empty seats. But he said he's waiting for the task force's report before making a final judgment.
Along with the Port Royal Elementary vote, task force members also recommended moving James J. Davis Early Childhood Education Center students to Whale Branch Elementary and St. Helena Early Learning Center students to the main building at St. Helena Elementary.
The task force will meet from 3 to 6 p.m. July 13 at Okatie Elementary School.
The school board will discuss options in work sessions later this month and plans a meeting in early August to take action on the school closures, according to Evans.
Follow staff writer Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.