Middle school teachers and students in Bluffton will need to brace for another year of tight quarters.
The Beaufort County Board of Education voted 9-1 Tuesday night, with Laura Bush opposed, to take more time to reach a long-term plan easing crowding at Bluffton's middle schools. Board member Paul Roth did not vote.
The vote dismisses a recommendation from the Bluffton Community Committee to install modular classrooms at Bluffton High School and move ninth-graders there this fall as a short-term fix to crowding at Bluffton and H.E. McCracken middle schools. Instead, middle and high school grade configurations will remain the same for the next school year.
Board member Geri Kinton of Beaufort stressed the importance of making a decision that would complement long-term plans to handle enrollment growth, despite comments from the community committee that the short-term moves would not interfere with those plans.
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"It is a short-term solution, and we all recognize the need for a long-term solution, but we are overcrowded today and the problem is getting worse," community committee member and parent Michel Claudio told the board.
Committee member and Bluffton Town Councilwoman Karen Lavery said the committee had a long-range solution that flowed into its recommendation, but was not given the chance to present it.
"We were tasked with presenting a short-term and long-term option," Lavery said. "Then, all of the sudden, (the school board) flip-flopped."
Hilton Head board member Mike Sanz and others contend that crowding is not an immediate problem. The district, they say, has time to come up with a better solution by January and hear input from yet another committee studying facility needs -- this time with a districtwide focus.
"The concern is spending $2 million on another Band-Aid and not solv(ing) the problem," Sanz said.
Bush argued that delaying action will only exacerbate the need for more space. Bluffton Middle is at 97.5 percent capacity, while McCracken is near that level, according to the district.
"We have a serious problem in Bluffton ... and whatever we decide as our strategic plan won't be implemented for another two years," Bush said. "In the meantime, we still have to deal with crowding."
Roth agreed and objected to Sanz's characterization of the committee's recommendation as a "Band-aid," arguing the modular classrooms buy the district five years to implement a long-term solution.
The community committee recommended the district spend an estimated $2 million to install the modulars at the high school, which would allow the middle schools to return to a sixth- through eighth-grade structure. Currently, sixth- and seventh-graders attend Bluffton Middle, and eighth- and ninth-graders attend McCracken.
The change was made in 2010 as a temporary fix to crowding at Bluffton High and was only meant to last two years.
Committee spokesman and Bluffton High principal Mark Dievendorf has said the recommended grade configurations would buy the middle schools three to four years before they reach capacity. That would give the district time to construct a new middle school by 2016 and a new high school in 2018, Dievendorf has told the board. Postponement would delay that plan by a year, he said.
Board chairman Bill Evans was concerned there wouldn't be enough time to have the modular classrooms in place by the start of next school year.
District officials said the units could have been in place had the board not postponed action until after a two-day work session that began Friday and included discussion of a five-year strategic plan and input from incoming superintendent Jeffrey Moss.
Evans said that a district-wide committee would be created to incorporate Bluffton enrollment issues into a long-range plan for the district.