The "Bluffton State of Mind" is in jeopardy, according to about 150 Bluffton parents who attended Monday night's Beaufort County schools town hall meeting.
The threat: the new Bluffton high school being built to ease overcrowding.
At a meeting intended to discuss proposed new attendance zones, the seats of Bluffton High School's auditorium were filled as many parents and community members "prayed" that school board members and district officials consider keeping one athletics program between Bluffton High and the-soon-to-be-built school.
"You don't understand the 'Bluffton State of Mind,' " Bluffton Town Councilman Fred Hamilton Jr. said at the meeting. "The school board has decided to build two schools and we have come to accept this, but now can the board accept keeping us unified and finding a way to make this work for our community?"
The board voted in October to build two new schools -- a prekindergarten through eighth grade elementary school and a ninth- through 12th-grade high school -- after many meetings and months of discussion.
During those meetings, board members considered plans that would build onto Bluffton High to create a mega-school, as well as plans that would make the new school a choice magnet program, with athletics remaining at Bluffton High.
On Monday, Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said the latter idea was on the right track. She suggested a concept that would make Bluffton High and the New Riverside-area high school a two-location campus that would keep the Bluffton High name and the Bobcat athletics mascot, she said.
"I see these two schools being two miles apart and almost being like a campus under the same umbrella," Sulka said. "So they are offering different academic programs but keeping the same athletic program and keeping this community united."
Many people voiced support for such a concept.
A Bluffton High football coach who has been with the district for many years said he understands Bluffton is growing but thinks there is a way to keep the athletics program together.
"We have to be sensible about this," coach Brother Kitty said. "It took us 20 years to build this program the way it is, so why would we cut it in half?"
Former board member Al Stern, who also served as chairman of the finance committee, said it would be fiscally smart to have one athletics program so the district wouldn't need to build multiple stadiums and arenas.
"To me, that idea of two buildings under the same Bluffton High School makes a lot of sense," Stern said. "I would think the board and the district would want to save money where they could."
One Bluffton High teacher, Alan Dunson, said he loved the idea of a larger campus.
"If this idea is not a good idea or is not legitimate or not logistically possible, I would love to know why not," he said.
Superintendent Jeffrey Moss said parents would be hard-pressed to find a school with more than 1,000 students that didn't have its own athletic programs and other extracurricular activities. The design for the new high school includes the facilities for a full athletics program, he said.
"If what you really are after is building that character trait that athletics build in a young adult, then what you really would want is more students to participate, and that's what two schools would do," Moss said. "In my mind, the decision to build the school and the full athletic complement has already been made."
Several of the board members -- including Evva Anderson and Mary Cordray, who represent the Bluffton area -- said they agree.
Many parents said they worried the board members had already made up their minds and weren't listening to their concerns and comments. Board members assured them they were taking into account everything being said, however.
"They are saying we don't get it, but I think we feel like they haven't paid attention to all the decisions we've made and conversations we've had about this," Anderson said. "This is a new concept, but I felt like we decided on this when we voted in October to build the new schools."
One student who spoke at the meeting said she thinks the second high school -- with its own programs -- could be a positive for the community. Bluffton High is too crowded and another high school is needed, senior Rebecca Gray said.
"At Bluffton High, the teams and other activities are so competitive, and it is really hard to get on them and participate, and I think it's fair to say that we as students deserve that opportunity," said Gray, who is battalion commander for the Junior ROTC program at the school. "We would have more room for sports and leadership opportunities."
Moss and several board members said that's the key thing to remember -- that the changes will alter the environment and opportunities for students, academically and athletically.
"It boils down to what we believe in this county is a viable academic program," Moss said. "I understand athletics, folks, but we also are a little bit about academics, and we have to plan for and provide for both."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.
- School board hears concerns from Moss Creek parents at first meeting, February 3, 2014
- Committee decides on attendance zone plan to take to community, January 30, 2014
- School board decides to build two new schools in Bluffton, October 1, 2013
- Parents speak out on options to address overcrowding in Bluffton schools, September 18, 2013
- Parents have questions but voice support for proposed new Bluffton schools, September 10, 2013