Beaufort County superintendent Jeffrey Moss and the school board weighed a fair number of options on the way to a decision to build schools in the Bluffton area, but the one they landed on offers some much-needed long-term stability.
School district officials have spent the past several years juggling attendance zones in an effort to fill under-used schools, free up space at overused schools and balance racial composition among the schools under a decades-old desegregation order. The resulting uncertainty was as unnerving for many parents as the student shuffling.
The board voted Tuesday to build two new Bluffton schools -- a 9-12 high school and a K-8 elementary school. That should relieve crowding at Bluffton's two middle schools and prevent overcrowding at Bluffton High School and several area elementary schools. The decision to build new schools in Bluffton was inevitable. The only question was when -- the where had been decided. The district already has the land.
The new schools are expected to open by the 2015-1016 school year at 80 percent capacity, allowing some students from outside the schools' attendance zones to go there.
It also leaves students who live in the Okatie area attending schools in southern Beaufort County, something parents of those students wanted.
Using traditional attendance zones, rather than making the new schools a choice option, makes sense. The uncertainty about how much room there would be for students outside the Bluffton area, as well as the costs and logistics for transportation and extracurricular activities, were major concerns. All of that goes off the table with a traditional high school set-up. And if Bluffton enrollment grows as expected, the choice aspect of the schools would have had to fall by the wayside.
As for next school year, the plan is to keep fifth-graders at Bluffton Elementary School, which is at 74 percent capacity now, at the school for sixth grade. That frees up space at Bluffton Middle School. At H.E. McCracken Middle School, home to Bluffton's eighth- and ninth-graders, mobile classrooms will be used to reduce crowding. Keeping ninth-graders at the middle school reduces enrollment pressure at Bluffton High, which is at 83 percent capacity now.
Next up is a countywide review of attendance zones, with the aim of rebalancing enrollment and making better use of existing facilities. Moss says he knows this is an emotional issue, but hopes to create stability in attendance for at least the next five years.
That would be very welcome, but the angst that lies ahead for the school board as it redraws attendance zones won't make it easy. The board and district officials must keep foremost the goal of better utilizing schools we already have as they work through this issue. We hope, for example, the decision to keep Okatie area students attending school south of the Broad River was due to a pressing need to build a new Bluffton area high school and not due to complaining parents.
And as the board tackles rezoning, members should remember the ripple effects their decisions have. An example is the decision to build schools in Whale Branch, particularly the Whale Branch Early College High School, when student populations didn't justify it. That is why we have Battery Creek High and Robert Smalls Middle School sitting nearly half-empty and Whale Branch Middle School at only 44 percent of its capacity. In fact, nine of 16 schools in northern Beaufort County are below 80 percent capacity. The Beaufort High cluster is at 75 percent capacity; the Battery Creek cluster at 63 percent capacity and the Whale Branch cluster at 75 percent capacity. Compare that with the Bluffton cluster at 92 percent capacity and the Hilton Head Island cluster at 91 percent capacity. Only one of 13 schools in southern Beaufort County is below 80 percent capacity.
The school board has its work cut out for it with the attendance zone review, particularly in northern Beaufort County. That work -- and the almost certain parental angst -- is to begin Oct. 15.