Tired of having their children distilled into data, parents urged the Beaufort County Board of Education at Tuesday night’s meeting not to redistrict students next school year and instead move forward with Moss’ proposal to ask voters for money to build more classroom space.
“Our children are not pawns,” parent Judy Dellinger told the board during the public comment period. “Do what is right for our children. The board needs to stop threatening rezoning.”
Over the past two months, the board has considered options to alleviate overcrowding. One of the district’s proposals presented to the board and to hundreds of parents at town hall meetings over the past two months would have sent some Bluffton students across the Broad River to schools with more space rather than to nearby schools with room, a scenario that some board members consider a scare tactic to gain support for a second try at last year’s failed referendum. The district denies this.
Schools superintendent Jeff Moss has recommended the board hold a $129 million referendum this year to build one new school, put additions on to several others and update existing facilities.
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Parents at the meeting were frustrated with some board members who are questioning Moss’ assertions now that the district has flip-flopped on which capacity numbers should be used to show the true nature of the problem.
Up until recently, the district had been using building capacity numbers to indicate future classroom needs. On Oct. 28, however — a day after The Island Packet reported that those capacity numbers don’t appear to show a need for a north of the Broad River redistricting scenario — Moss changed course and told the board that program capacity numbers likely show the situation to be worse than the district’s original assessment.
Some board members asked to see those numbers but Moss has not yet provided them.
On the table Tuesday night was board member Joseph Dunkle’s motion to hire an an outside consultant who would offer an “unbiased, third-party” opinion on the district’s enrollment, student assignment and future facility usage.
Parent Jodie Srutek, who also spoke during the public comment period at the meeting but before Dunkle had made his motion, offered the board a personal anecdote to consider — when her daughter was diagnosed with stage five cancer. Following complications from surgery, one team of doctors told Srutek that her daughter’s tumor showed she needed radiation therapy. Another team told her the tumor was dead.
“We had two experts, the best in their field, give us different opinions,” Srutek told the board. “We (went) with the people who knew her the best. They were in the trenches with us. The other group only understood her to be a number on a piece of paper.”
She pleaded with the board to do the same and listen to the administration instead of outsiders who she said don’t know students and their needs.
Hours after Srutek’s speech, the board voted down Dunkle’s request to hire an outside consultant, paving the way for a referendum to be put on the ballot sooner rather than later.
“We’re running out of time, folks,” board member Bill Payne said. He added that a study would cost thousands of dollars and saw the proposal as a “stall tactic.”
Moss estimated a consultant would take a minimum of nine months to complete a study.
Dunkle disputed Payne’s characterization of stalling and said staff should not be insulted by his request for a “fresh set of eyes.”
The 5-6 vote speaks to the board’s deep divide on the best way to ask taxpayers for millions of dollars to build a new Bluffton school and update existing facilities.
The board’s majority — Payne, Earl Campbell, Geri Kinton, Mary Cordray, Evva Anderson and Cynthia Gregory-Smalls — seem to favor construction to alleviate the issue as soon as possible.
The board’s minority members — Dunkle, along with JoAnn Orischak, David Striebinger, Christina Gwozdz and recently elected John Dowling — did not say they were against building new schools, but argued that an outsider’s opinion could better the board’s chances of passing the referendum, considering voters rejected a request for roughly $300 million last year.
Orischak said her support for a future referendum hinged on the vote to hire an outsider.
Part of the reason minority board members seem reluctant to take the district’s information at face value is because the district asked for $19 million during last year’s failed referendum to expand Hilton Head Island’s middle and high schools, yet district projections show neither school consistently going above 100 percent capacity through 2021-22.
Moss now recommends a reconfiguration of one of the island’s schools that would eliminate the need to add onto Hilton Head Middle. He still includes an expansion to the island’s high school in his referendum proposal because he says the arts wing is inadequate.
“Maybe we are getting too into the weeds (on this), but for us as board members (and our) comfort levels we have to sign off on asking for millions of dollars from taxpayers and ensure we’re making a wise decision for the district,” Orischak said. “We’re supposed to be responsible stewards of taxpayers as well as caring for students.”