About 10 residents addressed the board, some shedding tears as they pleaded with members to find another way to combat the anticipated $4-million budget shortfall that is prompting the district to consider school closings to cut costs.
"This is wrong," said Nikedra Middleton, whose children attend Shell Point. "This shouldn't even be thought about. This shouldn't even be put across the table to discuss. All the schools in Beaufort County are needed."
"We are actually having a dialogue about closing a model school that has served our community since 1968," said Mary Humphrey, a teacher at Shell Point. "... We should be ashamed of ourselves for even considering this an option."
District administration gave board members several options for reducing excess capacity in the county's about 30 public schools at their work session Friday. One option included shuttering Shell Point Elementary, which would save between $650,000 and $890,000 annually, according to district data.
The board first voted in September to consider closing some schools next year and asked staff for a report detailing the enrollment and capacity of each school. Beaufort County public schools are only 75 percent full and the district has more than 6,000 empty seats in its buildings, according to the report.
Parents said Tuesday they were blind-sided by the suggestion on Shell Point.
"We do feel bullied," said Lisa Kindwall, chairwoman of the School Improvement Council at Shell Point. "This decision came to us as such a surprise and it shouldn't have."
Mary Ellen Parks, the school's principal, said the news has students as confused and worried as their parents. She said one child suggested having a car wash to raise money for the school. Another student said she'd get all her friends to sign a petition.
"She said, 'I have money in my piggy bank that I can give so we can keep our school'," Parks said. Board chairman Fred Washington Jr. assured the crowd the board has not yet made a decision on any budget cuts or school closings, but he said the district cannot operate with a deficit.
"Some tough decisions will have to be made," he said. "I am not sure what they will be but I know they have to be made."
Washington announced three public meetings scheduled for after Thanksgiving to gather community input.
Several board members said their hands are tied by a state education funding formula that shortchanges Beaufort County and by County Council's rejection of the board's proposal this year to raise taxes on non-resident homes and commercial and personal properties by about 2 percent. The increase would have added about $21 to the tax bill for a $200,000 home, officials said.
Board vice chairman Bob Arundell said the district wouldn't have to make such drastic cuts if the tax increase had been approved.
"Please, the next time you bump into your County Council members, please tell them that lowering taxes is nice but not at the expense of our kids."
Some parents suggested alternate ways to cope with the budget shortfall that don't include school closures.
For instance, Michael Dodge suggested petitioning the community to raise the local sales tax to generate additional revenue for schools.
"If it's good enough to build roads, it's good enough to build a road for our children's future," he said.