Report: County schools are only 75 percent full; board to discuss possible school closings

Beaufort County public schools are only 75 percent full, and that has Board of Education members wondering if the school district is using its buildings efficiently.

The school district has seats for more than 26,000 students, but serves fewer than 20,000, according to enrollment on the 15th day of the current school year.

The amount of excess space varies by geographic area, from a low of 16 percent of space unused in Hilton Head Island schools to a high of 42 percent in the northernmost part of the county.

The board voted in September to consider closing some schools during its discussions of the 2011-12 budget and directed administration to prepare a report that details the enrollment of each county school and its capacity.

The board has received the enrollment report, as well as five-year enrollment projections prepared by district staff, and will discuss the issue at a work session next Friday and Saturday.

"At this point, I want (discussions) to be open-ended," board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said. "I don't have any preconceived notions or predetermined outcome that I want."

According to the report, the number of excess seats by cluster are:

  • Whale Branch: 1,051 of 2,512 seats are empty, or 42 percent.
  • Battery Creek: 1,605 of 4,258 seats are empty, or 38 percent.
  • Bluffton: 1,452 of 7,489 seats are empty, or 19 percent.
  • Beaufort: 1,232 of 7,098 seats are empty, or 17 percent.
  • Hilton Head: 755 of 4,812 seats are empty, or 16 percent.
  • The district calculated building capacities by multiplying the number of classrooms in each building by the district's student-teacher staffing ratio for the applicable grade level. That number then was multiplied by 0.85. It was not immediately clear why that multiplier was used.

    The report also includes the amount of space used in each building by outside organizations, such as Head Start and law enforcement. Those organizations occupy space that could provide 441 seats in district schools, according to the report. The district did not consider that space excess capacity in its report.

    Jesse Washington, a school district spokesman, said the district already has adjusted its building and construction plans since the recession slowed growth. He said construction of a sixth Bluffton-area elementary school voters approved in a 2008 referendum has been delayed, as have plans for a second Bluffton-area high school and a third elementary school on Lady's Island.

    Fred Washington said he hopes the board will decide at its work session if it needs to close schools next fall, but he doesn't expect a vote on closing specific schools next weekend.

    If the board wants to move forward, he expects to ask district administration for a recommendation that considers effects on the operating budget, effects on attendance zones and the likely response of the federal Office for Civil Rights.

    "I see us looking at those different factors, and we need to have adequate time to do it," Fred Washington said. "We need intelligent debate and discussion to give this the time it deserves and not rush through it."