Parents can breathe a sigh of relief.
Bluffton students will not be sent across the Broad River bridge to northern Beaufort County schools in the 2019-20 school year, a fear that arose last fall when superintendent Jeff Moss presented this as a possibility to reduce overcrowding in schools.
At a special-called meeting Tuesday, the Beaufort County school board eliminated this as one of the options Moss can include in his plan to address overcrowding in the 2019-20 school year.
The board already decided not to alter school zoning assignments for next school year at its Dec. 12 meeting. Instead, mobile classrooms will be placed at the district's two most crowded schools, River Ridge Academy and Pritchardville Elementary School.
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But in the wake of the public's overwhelming defeat of a $76 million school bond referendum last month, the board must decide on a plan for the 2019-20 school year as projections show the district will enroll another several hundred students.
Last fall, Moss presented two redistricting plans at town halls held across the county. One of those plans, known as the "Fair and Balanced Plan," involved sending some Bluffton students to Robert Smalls International Academy and other northern Beaufort County schools that have the building capacity to support more students.
Some board members on the minority bloc, which often votes in opposition to Moss' recommendations, accused Moss of designing the plan to panic parents in an effort to indirectly drum up support for a referendum.
Moss denied this, saying that board members had asked him to present parents and taxpayers with all rezoning options.
In an 8-2 vote with one abstention Tuesday, the school board decided to eliminate the unpopular option of sending Bluffton students to schools north of the Broad River from the superintendent's future recommendations.
Board members Joseph Dunkle and Cynthia Gregory-Smalls voted against the motion.
Gregory-Smalls said bridges should not be a divider, noting that her husband crosses several bridges from St. Helena Island to Sea Pines each day.
Dunkle opposed the motion because, in some cases, the way the current lines are drawn sends students to schools farther from ones closer to their home.
For example, he said, students living on Callawassie Island are zoned to attend May River High School — the district's most crowded of its six high schools — when Battery Creek High School is about five miles closer and operating at about 50 percent capacity. Sending them to the less crowded school, however, would mean crossing the Broad River, a natural barrier the board decided during its last county-wide redistricting in the 2014-15 school year that students should not cross.
Board member Christina Gwozdz abstained from the motion, saying she did not approve of the "piecemeal" approach to tackle overcrowding.
Other parameters the board approved:
- Keeping teacher-student ratio levels in place
- Keeping school choice in place at schools where capacity is available with priority given to students already "grandfathered" into the choice school, students of district employees and siblings of students already "choiced" into a school
No vote was taken on students crossing the Hilton Head Island bridges, meaning some plans Moss may present to the board for consideration include Bluffton students being sent to Hilton Head schools and some Hilton Head students getting assigned to Bluffton schools.
Members of the board's minority bloc voted or abstained from many of the motions that set these parameters.
"We’re boxing you in on everything," board member David Striebinger told Moss. "Really, the only thing we’ve said is mobiles. That’s why I voted 'no' to a lot of things because I want to give you flexibility (in coming up with solutions)."
Moss said the district's facilities department will begin looking at Bluffton school sites most receptive to mobile units.
Some schools, like River Ridge, lack the room to fit more mobiles without taking up playground space. Other Bluffton school properties have the space to accommodate a significant amount of mobile units in what some dub a "mobile village."
A 2010 story by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette with the headline, "The era of mobile classrooms finally ends in Bluffton" reported that about 2,000 students in Bluffton-area public schools learned in mobiles during the Great Recession period. About 50 mobiles were removed with the opening of two new schools — Pritchardville Elementary and Bluffton Middle — and the opening of early childhood centers at Bluffton Elementary and M.C. Riley Elementary.
Moss said he and district staff will use the board's criteria to develop as many options as they can, which he plans to present to the board sometime in June.
How many mobiles are S.C. school districts using as classrooms in the 2017-18 school year?
Beaufort: 11 classrooms— Five at Coosa Elementary, four at H.E. McCracken Middle, one at Beaufort High, one at Bluffton High
Lexington 1: About 150 classrooms
Berkeley: 84 classroom units
Horry: About 139 classrooms
Charleston: 275 classrooms in 145 mobile units
Dorchester 2: 108 classrooms
Richland 1: Did not immediately have number available
Richland 2: Did not immediately have number available
Source: Communications departments for each school district