Beaufort News

Some Beaufort County schools could close in 2012

School closings are back on the table.

After backing away earlier this year from what proved to be a contentious issue, the Beaufort County Board of Education voted last week to direct district staff to create a list of schools that could be closed for the 2012-13 school year.

The school board has said it will not close any schools next school year.

School board vice chairman George Wilson, who proposed the vote Tuesday, said closing schools will allow the district to save on overhead and put that money toward classroom instruction.

"In today's economic condition, this is what we have to do," he said.

His motion was approved 7-4, with board members Earl Campbell, Ronald Speaks, Michael Rivers and Herbert Burnes opposed.

The district is moving quickly to start the discussions and gather public input. The first of three public meetings will be at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Bluffton High School.

School board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said it is important to communicate with the public before the school year ends and families depart for vacations.

A final decision is expected by Oct. 1, Washington said.

The board said in February it would "immediately initiate any activities necessary to close at least one or more schools" for the 2012-13 academic year if County Council doesn't approve a 3 percent property tax increase to fund next school year's operating budget.

County Council voted May 9 to deny any tax increase for school operations.

The board has been considering closing schools since last fall to trim its budget and reduce excess capacity. Most of that space is in elementary and middle schools and primarily in northern Beaufort County, Washington said.

Shuttering Shell Point Elementary was proposed in November. However, parents there fought the proposal, and the board agreed to leave all schools open for another year.

Washington said the school board will do more to involve the public in this discussion. Parents challenged the board's process last year, accusing it of making decisions before gathering their input.

"This time, we are going to involve the parents" and the school improvement councils, he said.

He said he hopes to create a committee of school representatives and other residents, such as those representing the business community, to review options for school closings. He plans to seek representation from each geographic area of the county.

He wants the group to work through the summer and report to the board by August.

Washington expects the review to tackle capacity issues comprehensively, including projected overcrowding in the Bluffton area and changes to attendance zones.