Education

School board divided on Bluffton school crowding

Howard Kallem, back right, an attorney with the Office for Civil Rights answers questions after his presentation during the first day of a two-day work session for the Beaufort County Board of Education Friday morning at the Beaufort County School Educational Support Center in Beaufort.
Howard Kallem, back right, an attorney with the Office for Civil Rights answers questions after his presentation during the first day of a two-day work session for the Beaufort County Board of Education Friday morning at the Beaufort County School Educational Support Center in Beaufort. Sarah Welliver

Middle school teachers and students in Bluffton may need to brace for another year of tight quarters.

The Beaufort County Board of Education remained divided Friday over a recommendation to install modular classrooms at Bluffton High School and move ninth-graders to the school this fall as a short-term solution to alleviate crowding at Bluffton and H.E. McCracken middle schools.

A majority of the board seemed to favor taking more time to reach a long-term plan, despite protest from other board members.

The board postponed a decision March 5 to change middle and high school grade configurations until after a two-day work session that began Friday and included discussion of a five-year strategic plan and input from incoming superintendent Jeffrey Moss.

But after nearly two hours of deliberations, the result was the same -- a close split in favor of waiting another year to make changes.

"The community has had it with short-term fixes and is looking for something that is longer and well-thought-out," board member JoAnn Orischak of Hilton Head Island said.

Fellow Hilton Head board member Mike Sanz contends that crowding is not an immediate problem at the high school or McCracken Middle, and space constraints at Bluffton Middle could be resolved by relocating lockers that occupy several classrooms. District officials, however, said the school's halls are too narrow to accommodate the lockers and meet state building standards.

Beaufort board member Geri Kinton joined Orischak in stressing the importance of making a decision that would complement long-term plans to handle enrollment growth.

The Bluffton Community Committee recommended the district spend an estimated $2 million to install the modular classrooms at Bluffton High, which would allow the two middle schools to return to a sixth- through eighth-grade structure. Currently, sixth- and seventh-graders attend Bluffton Middle, and eighth- and ninth-graders attend McCracken.

The change was made in 2011 as a temporary fix to crowding at Bluffton High School and was only meant to last two years. But now the middle schools are cramped.

The board charged the committee with bringing it a short-term recommendation in March and a long-term recommendation in May.

Committee spokesman and Bluffton High principal Mark Dievendorf has said a delay would exacerbate the need for more space by 2016-17.

The recommended grade configurations would buy the middle schools three to four years before they reach capacity, he said. That would give the district time to construct a new middle school by 2016 and a new high school in 2018, Dievendorf has told the board. Postponement would delay that plan by a year, he said.

Additionally, the recommendation merely affirms what the board decided to do in 2011. Since then, though, the board has a new makeup after last November's elections.

"I can't understand why we're going back and forth," said board member Earl Campbell, who represents the Whale Branch area. "... We keep going over and over the same thing and need to get away from that."

Added board member Paul Roth of Okatie: "It is an operable, good solution, and putting it off makes the problem worse. There's no place to put these kids."

Chairman Bill Evans and board secretary Laura Bush, who represents Bluffton, implored the board to make a decision at its next regular meeting, which is Tuesday at the Bluffton library, so teachers and students know where they will be this fall.

The board's work session resumes 8:30 a.m. Friday in the media center at the school district office in Beaufort.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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