A day after The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported that some Beaufort County school board members were questioning the motives behind the district’s proposals to alleviate overcrowding next year, schools superintendent Jeff Moss implied that the situation might actually be worse than he had previously told them.
At a Saturday school board work session, Moss indicated “conditions,” such as special education regulations and other programs, could mean schools are more overcrowded than what the current building capacity numbers show — numbers the district itself has been using in its presentations to parents about overcrowding — but he offered the board no new data to support this claim.
Instead, district officials presented several new redistricting scenarios Saturday that relied on numbers listed in the district’s 2016 Capital Improvements Plan — the same numbers Moss suggested don’t provide the full scope of the overcrowding.
“If (our numbers) aren’t the full picture, then you need to show us the right numbers,” board member Joseph Dunkle told Moss.
At stake is Moss’ proposal to hold a $128.7 million referendum, significantly less than the $300 million one voters rejected last year, to address the district’s growing enrollment, which is almost entirely occurring in Bluffton.
Money from the referendum would be used, in part, to build one new school and several additions to existing schools. In the meantime, though, the district has been hosting town hall meetings for parents over the past month to discuss short-term solutions for next year, which included only two redistricting scenarios, one that would send some Bluffton students across the Broad River to schools in Beaufort when seats at other Bluffton schools are available.
The district’s capacity numbers are key to determining what steps the board will take to alleviate overcrowding next year.
On Monday, district spokesman Jim Foster was still unable to provide the numbers on which Moss was basing his statement Saturday about a possibly more dire overcrowding situation than originally presented.
“This is the first time program capacity data have been requested,” Foster wrote in an email response.
The data, however, is being requested now because Moss brought it up in a heated exchange with board member JoAnn Orischak, who pointed out the number of available seats at each Bluffton school.
Two schools — River Ridge Academy and Pritchardville Elementary — are collectively 212 seats over capacity this school year. At Bluffton’s other elementary schools, there are 587 seats open and Bluffton’s two middle schools show 437 seats open.
Maximizing use of the empty seats, however, would mean redistricting, a solution the majority of Bluffton parents strongly oppose. Some families bought homes in a particular gated community or neighborhood specifically for the school in which it was zoned.
“I’ve just been using the numbers I’ve been given,” Orischak said. “... Now if that’s not valid, we need updates to why that’s not valid information.”
Moss responded that capacity numbers change year to year and the district doesn’t know the disability of a student until they receive him or her. However, a full month of school had been in session this year by the time the district presented capacity numbers to the board at a Sept. 19 meeting as well as to hundreds of parents at the town hall meetings that kicked off Sept. 21.
In the 2015-16 school year, the most recent year in which state data is available, 1,868 special education students were enrolled in the district. In the school year before, data shows 1,858 special education students enrolled, which could suggest the numbers are fairly consistent year to year.
Two other board members — Cynthia Gregory-Smalls and Christina Gwozdz — made similar requests for accurate capacity counts at each school after Moss raised the point on program capacity differing from building capacity.
“I’m counting on the experts to do their job, and I’m sure they will candidly hand us the information we need to make an informed decision,” Gregory-Smalls said Tuesday.
Asked if she would have liked to see the numbers when the discussion began more than a month ago, she did not answer the question, but said she looks forward to seeing the numbers in November.
Orischak, a vocal critic of Moss who earlier this month asked him to voluntarily resign by the end of the school year, had a different take.
“How can board members make an informed decision when we were told we don’t have accurate capacity for each school in our district?” she asked Monday. “I’ve always assumed the capacity numbers included those things.”
It’s unclear to what extent special education regulations and other program restrictions would reduce a building’s capacity.
Foster did not provide a list of “conditions” affecting capacity when asked, instead writing that the district follows all state and federal guidelines for class size.
There are no federal regulations that address class size for special education, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman said.
In South Carolina, there are no mandated student-teacher ratios for classrooms currently in effect aside from special education or pre-K, state Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown wrote in an email. Depending on a student’s disability and level of severity, between 10 and 15 special education students can be assigned to a teacher.
“Those 12 students are all you can put in that classroom,” Moss said. “You can’t put 20-some students (in a class).”