A Beaufort County School District presentation about school overcrowding is panicking many Bluffton parents who have been told they might have to send their children to schools north of the Broad River next year, but current capacity numbers and projections for 2018-19 don’t support contentions that such a drastic move is necessary.
In fact, only one school currently exceeds the redistricting threshold set by the Beaufort County Board of Education and next year’s projections have again identified only one school as exceeding that threshold.
The Oct. 10 presentation to Bluffton parents was one in a series of six town halls held by schools superintendent Jeff Moss over two months to address Beaufort County’s booming population and to discuss options to alleviate growing enrollment.
Parents at these town halls were presented with eight strategies to address the problem, including the addition of mobile classrooms — the focus, however, was on the district’s two rezoning scenarios for next year.
But just two of the district’s 31 schools, both in Bluffton, are currently over 100 percent capacity and nearby schools appear to have room for the overflow of students, at least in the short-term, raising questions about whether the district and school board are presenting a dire scenario to indirectly drum up support for an expected second try at a referendum to build new schools and update aging facilities.
“Some of the things presented (at the town halls) seem to be designed for the shock value more than feasibility,” board member David Striebinger wrote in an email.
The district denies this and says it is the board that asked for this north of the Broad River scenario at its Aug. 11 work session, referring to a suggestion made by Striebinger that the district present all options to taxpayers.
When asked why he now says this scenario was designed to shock parents, Striebinger said his recommendation was for the district to show taxpayers more than just the two most dramatic scenarios for rezoning.
“I would have liked (taxpayers to have been given) five or six options (for rezoning),” he said Thursday.
Some of the things presented (at the town halls) seem to be designed for the shock value more than feasibility.
David Striebinger, Beaufort County Board of Education member
Board member JoAnn Orischak echoed this sentiment. She has twice asked the district to include an option that she says would be more reasonable, one that would allow students to finish at their current schools before rezoning would kick in for those students, but she says the district has not yet addressed her request.
“You could hear a sigh of relief if parents knew that (option existed),” she said. “(Moss) wants (the options presented) to be unappealing, unattractive, and he doesn’t want anyone to accept it.”
The district maintains that the town halls were not set up to direct parents toward any particular solution, though Moss says he favors building new schools over redistricting.
“It’s an overstatement to refer to these ideas as ‘plans,’” district spokesman Jim Foster said, though the district’s own presentation to parents refers to them as “plans.” “What’s on the table at this point is a collection of discussion points along with feedback from parents. They’re conversation starters. (The board has) to start somewhere.”
Recently elected board member John Dowling, who attended the Bluffton town hall, saw the meeting differently.
“Parents were presented with extremes.”
Bursting at the seams?
According to Beaufort County School Board policy, redistricting isn’t considered until a school exceeds 110 percent capacity.
For now, the overcrowding at Beaufort County schools is concentrated at Pritchardville Elementary and River Ridge Academy, according to 45-day enrollment numbers released Wednesday.
Both Pritchardville and River Ridge serve some of Bluffton’s fastest-growing neighborhoods.
Pritchardville has 39 students more than its 800-seat capacity, putting it to 104 percent capacity, and River River Academy has 173 students more than its 1,013-seat capacity, pushing it to 117 percent capacity.
Bluffton’s remaining elementary and middle schools have current capacities that range between 70 percent and 91 percent full.
Since the last county-wide redistricting two years ago, Pritchardville was rezoned once again this school year, which sent about 120 students to either Bluffton Elementary School, about six miles away from Pritchardville Elementary, or to Michael C. Riley Elementary School, about eight miles away.
River Ridge, Bluffton’s newest school, has been popular with parents because it is the only kindergarten through eighth grade school south of the Broad River, offers Montessori programming and has a later start time than the district’s elementary schools.
Last year, River Ridge was at 104 percent capacity and 257 students not zoned for the school attended it, either through the district’s School Choice program or because of the district’s “employee courtesy” policy, which allows children of district employees to attend the district school of their choice.
When a school exceeds 95 percent capacity, the school board stops accepting School Choice students at that school. There are no such limits in the board’s policy for the kids of district employees, and Moss says he would like to keep employee courtesy available.
The big issue, the district says, is population growth.
“Bluffton is exploding,” Foster said.
Five-year projections, which the district says have historically been on the conservative side, show Pritchardville and River Ridge, along with H.E. McCracken Middle and May River High, will indeed be overcapacity by 2021-22. The remaining six Bluffton schools, however, will stay below 100 percent capacity over the next five years.
The district likes to keep schools at 85 percent capacity or below, which they say allows for the Choice program as well as more growth.
A dozen district schools are currently at or above 85 percent capacity.
The district says this number doesn’t trigger any immediate action but at recent board meetings, the district has used this number to imply the need for a solution.
“Nothing happens when a school reaches 85 percent,” Foster said. “It’s a goal for (a school) functioning at its best.”
Over the course of 11 years, Amanda Walrad’s oldest daughter has lived at the same address, but has attended five district schools: kindergarten and first grade at Bluffton Elementary, second through fifth at Okatie Elementary, sixth and seventh at Bluffton Middle, eighth at River Ridge Academy and her first two years of high school at May River.
Because of overcrowding, she might have to attend yet another school next year, Bluffton High.
If we don’t pass referendums, if we don’t put up mobiles, it’s the kids that would suffer from redistricting.
Amanda Walrad, Bluffton mother
In 2016, voters rejected a $300 million referendum, the first referendum in district history to fail since 1994. The school district says this happened because it did not adequately educate voters.
District critics, however, would put the blame on Moss, who they say lost the community’s trust after ethics violations in 2015, and on a bickering board that failed to lead in the aftermath. Others might point to Moss’ time as a superintendent in Beaufort County, N.C., where a longtime county commissioner accused Moss of overbuilding, something Moss has continued to deny.
Had last fall’s referendum passed, the district would have been able to build additional wings at River Ridge and at May River High School by next school year, as well as two new Bluffton schools, one of which would have been ready to open by 2019-20. The referendum also included money to buy land for a third new Bluffton school and to add wings to two Hilton Head Island schools.
The district was unable Thursday to say how many more seats the new schools in Bluffton and the expansions to Hilton Head schools would have added, but the wings at May River High and River Ridge would have increased capacity by 400 students at each school.
A referendum was not listed as an option on the district’s Powerpoint presentation, but as Moss laid out the district’s crunched capacity at the meetings, parents began to rally around the idea of another go at the polls.
“If we don’t pass referendums, if we don’t put up mobiles, it’s the kids that would suffer from redistricting,” Walrad, who attended the Oct. 10 town hall in Bluffton, said.
“We want to get the kids what we need and it’s not about one man or one school board,” she said.
At the town halls, the district presented two rezoning plans for next year.
One of the district’s 31 school currently exceeds the redistricting threshold set by the Beaufort County Board of Education.
Under the “Fair and Balanced” plan, students living in Bluffton’s Belfair Plantation and Eagle’s Pointe communities would travel across the Broad River to attend Robert Smalls International Academy for middle school.
The second plan, known as the “Option 1” plan, avoids students crossing the Broad River bridge, but still requires some Bluffton elementary students to bus across the bridge to Hilton Head.
Redistricting is one of the cheapest and most efficient options by maximizing capacity at the district’s existing schools.
It’s also one of the most controversial options, vehemently opposed by the majority of parents, especially in Bluffton, which has been most affected by the zoning changes over the years.
Instead, Bluffton parents seem to support the idea of using mobile classrooms, temporary trailers set up next to schools that allow students to stay at the school in which they’re currently assigned, as a short-term solution.
Beaufort County School District already uses 27 mobiles at the following schools: Coosa Elementary, Beaufort High, Bluffton Elementary, Bluffton High, Hilton Head Island Middle and H.E. McCracken Middle. Not all of the mobiles are being used as classrooms, however, spokesman Foster said.
Each two-classroom mobile costs roughly $80,000. Adding six mobiles to River Ridge and four to Pritchardville would accommodate an estimated 200 students next school year and would run the district about $800,000.
Almost every school board member, though, voiced their disapproval of the mobile classroom solution at an August work session.
But redistricting is also an unpalatable solution for several school board members.
“I don’t want to keep juggling our kids because I know how hard it was on my own,” said board member Evva Anderson, who represents swaths of Bluffton. A child of hers moved seven times in seven years — all while living at the same home address, she said.
“To be honest, I feel like parents would prefer to build,” Anderson said. “They’d rather be tight and squeeze and wait until there’s a building.”
‘We must rezone’
Parents who attended the district’s town halls could easily have walked away from those meetings with the impression that the district is advocating for rezoning as a solution to next year’s overcrowding —even though the district denies this is the case.
Thirty-four of the 48 slides in the district’s Powerpoint presentation were about rezoning and the phrase “We must Rezone for 2018-19 school year” was used twice.
“I wouldn’t (put) too much stock into that,” Foster said. “It was inartfully expressed.”
While parents homed in on redistricting and the mobile classroom solutions, there are actually several other options on the table to avoid redistricting.
▪ Increasing class sizes
▪ Eliminating pre-kindergarten classes
▪ Having teachers move from classroom to classroom
▪ Splitting school days into morning and evening sessions
▪ Year-round schooling
Another solution, changing which grades serve which schools, could alleviate Hilton Head Island’s crowded classrooms, Moss said earlier this month.
Reconfiguring Hilton Head Island School of the Creative Arts into a grades 1-8 school would eliminate the need to expand Hilton Head Middle School, the most crowded of the five district schools on the island.
The district asked for a $19 million addition to Hilton Head middle and high schools in last fall’s referendum. District projections show neither school consistently going above 100 percent capacity through 2021-22.
“What that means was that construction wasn’t necessary,” Orischak said, “and we were asking for too much money from taxpayers.”
Have an opinion? Share it with your school board rep:
The school board will discuss the town halls and a possible referendum at its work session 10 a.m. Saturday.
Earl Campbell, District 1, Lobeco/Gray’s Hill
▪ 843-846-4531 or 843-476-7512
David Striebinger, District 2, Beaufort/Lady’s Island
Cynthia Gregory-Smalls, District 3, St. Helena Island
Joseph Dunkle, District 4, Port Royal
Geri Kinton, District 5, Burton
John Dowling, District 6, Okatie and Sun City Hilton Head
Evva Anderson, District 7, Pritchardville
Mary Cordray, District 8, Bluffton
Christina Gwozdz, District 9, Bluffton
Bill Payne, District 10, northern Hilton Head Island
▪ 843-682-3285 or 310-600-0873
JoAnn Orischak, District 11, southern Hilton Head Island
Or attend an upcoming school board meeting:
▪ 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 28 at Beaufort County School District, 2900 Mink Point Blvd.
▪ 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7 at Beaufort County Council Chambers, 100 Ribaut Road