A joint team from Beaufort and Jasper counties is recommending the school districts close the Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence after the 2016-17 school year.
Rather than keeping the technical school open, the ACE transition team proposed allowing the Technical College of the Lowcountry to take over the property. The two school boards would then reinvest the money from the sale of ACE to create and expand career- and technical-education programs within the districts' own schools, the report suggested.
Several board members, however, questioned what would come of the Beaufort and Jasper county students who could not qualify for college-level courses at TCL by passing the ACT WorkKeys Bronze certification. From there, discussions turned to mixed messages and miscommunication between Beaufort and Jasper counties, ultimately leaving the school boards with no resolution Monday night.
"Whatever history there is, we've got to move forward, and the only thing that matters going forward is the kids getting CATE opportunities," said Gary West, chief financial officer for the Jasper County School District and a transition team member. "That's the critical thing."
About 60 community members attended the joint meeting of the Beaufort and Jasper boards of education to hear the report, which was made public for the first time since its completion about a month ago.
The proposal also called for greatly reducing the offerings at ACE for the 2016-17 school year, after Beaufort County exits the school's governance and ceases paying two-thirds of its $3.2 million budget, West said.
That would allow Jasper to afford operating the school on its own.
West added that if the boards do not agree quickly, Jasper County students will be without certain CATE opportunities in the fall of 2017.
Officials have said this would disproportionately affect low-income and minority students in Jasper County.
Monday's work, though, was not so simple as agreeing to the recommendation, which came as a surprise to some Beaufort County members.
"I'm elected by folks from Beaufort County, but I'm still concerned about students from Jasper County," board member Earl Campbell said. "... I think the change that is coming is not going to benefit all the students."
"Maybe there's some other programs we can explore," board member Laura Bush added.
Jasper board members Berty Riley and Daisy Mitchell agreed that the process was moving too quickly and implored Beaufort County officials to think of the disadvantaged students across their county lines.
Their agreement, though, mostly ended there. Jasper school board chairman Ted Moyd said he was tired of mixed messages from Beaufort County, such as comments that the school board may want to continue splitting governance of ACE.
Vice-chair Mary Cordray also maintained Monday night that June 2016 is "not carved in stone" as a time for the Beaufort County school board to leave the governance of ACE.
The transition team's report says the Beaufort County School District announced it would do just that in the fall of 2014.
Moyd said Jasper County no longer needs Beaufort County's help, adding, "We're big boys on this side of the table."
Other members echoed his sentiments, adding that they simply want clarity from Beaufort County.
"I don't want to be in a marriage if you don't want me," Riley said. "... Don't pity Jasper County because we will survive, and we will do the best that we can, and we won't let our students down."
The team considered seven other options before settling on one recommendation, but found serious challenges with each.
For instance, a private third-party entity could take over ACE and charge tuition, but no company has expressed interest.
The S.C. Department of Education could also partner with JCSD in partnership with Hampton and Colleton counties, though travel time with that possibility "is a major concern."
Board member Paul Roth said the two boards need to turn their attention to the future rather than trying to revive the aging technical school.
The school needs millions in renovations, he said -- money that could be coming into Jasper County instead from a sale of the property and outside partnerships.
"The state can't leave us high and dry, and TCL has a really strong interest in getting hold of this property, and they're highly motivated and willing to put in a lot of money," Roth said. "We should capitalize on that."
Both boards postponed scheduling town hall meetings to continue discussing the recommendation.
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.