A committee studying ways to alleviate crowding at Bluffton and H.E. McCracken middle schools says spending $2 million on modular classrooms and shifting ninth-graders to Bluffton High School is the best short-term solution.
The Bluffton Community Committee, which presented its recommendations to the Board of Education Thursday, determined that moving ninth graders from McCracken back to Bluffton High School and returning middle schools to sixth- through eighth-grade was the best option.
The school board is expected to vote on the recommendation at its Tuesday meeting.
Sixth- and seventh-graders currently attend Bluffton Middle. Eighth- and ninth-graders attend McCracken.
Those grade structures -- unique to those two schools -- were established in 2011 and designed as a temporary fix to address overcrowding at Bluffton High School, which no longer has freshmen.
But now the middle schools are bursting at the seams, too -- Bluffton Middle is only 20 students shy of its 1,035-student capacity and McCracken exceeds its 909-student capacity by 21, according to the Beaufort County School District.
The committee also considered building a new elementary school off Davis Road and adding a two-story wing of 20 to 25 classrooms at the high school.
Price tags for those project would likely be about $25 million and $10 million to $12 million, respectively. They also would take at least two years each to build, committee members said.
Those options will likely be revisited as part of a long-term solution, committee spokesman and Bluffton High School Principal Mark Dievendorf said.
The group also considered adding mobile classrooms to the two middle schools. However, "adding additional mobiles is not cost-effective and would not resolve the long-term solution" to provide space for 9-12 grade students, Dievendorf said.
The committee's recommendations don't conflict with long-range options for the Bluffton cluster of schools and thus can be followed immediately, he added.
Committee members say more schools eventually will be needed in the Bluffton area, and it is expected to present a long-term recommendation by May.
The group will seek public input at community meetings scheduled March 23 and 26.
Reconfiguring the middle schools will mean setting new attendance zones. Dievendorf said the committee believes assignments it has recommended will meet requirements of the district's voluntary desegregation agreement with the Office of Civil Rights.
The move would put about 470 ninth-graders at Bluffton High, which currently is at about 78 percent of its capacity, with 1,124 students in grades 10 through 12, district officials said.
The move would also mean neither middle school would likely approach capacity for another three to four years, according to enrollment projections.
School board member JoAnn Orischak and committee member Bert Walker said they would have preferred the committee tackle the long-term solution before rushing to another temporary fix, though the committee was charged to present a short-term recommendation by March.
"Some of us feel staying as we are for another year (or maybe two) is the best short-term solution," Walker wrote the school board.
He contends overcrowding is not an immediate problem at the high school or H. E. McCracken, and space constraints at Bluffton Middle School can be resolved by relocating lockers that occupy several classrooms to "dead-space" areas of the school.
"This can be done at a small cost of $300,000," Walker wrote.