Board must be guided by facts, not emotion

The numbers are too stark and the money too tight for the Beaufort County Board of Education not to do something about closing all or parts of some schools next fall.

At its retreat today, the school board begins a close look at enrollment figures and capacities at its 33 school buildings. Overall, schools are at about 75 percent capacity, with most of that excess capacity in northern Beaufort County, according to a report recently compiled by district staff. But even in southern Beaufort County, all of the schools but one -- Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center -- have room for more students.

Enrollment projections show the county's student population growing 6.7 percent between 2010 and 2015. Enrollment projections for northern Beaufort County actually decrease by 2 percent by 2015. (That figure doesn't include Riverview Charter School, whose enrollment is projected to increase from 241 in 2010 to 456 in 2015.) Enrollment at southern Beaufort County schools is expected to increase 13.3 percent by 2015.

The task for the school board: Decide what to do based on logic and not politics. These tough decisions can't be based on community calls of "me, too" as we've seen in past school construction decisions, or perhaps in this case, calls of "not me."

According to the district report, the number of excess seats by cluster are:

  • Whale Branch: 1,051 of 2,512 seats are empty, or 42 percent.
  • Battery Creek: 1,605 of 4,258 seats are empty, or 38 percent.
  • Beaufort: 1,232 of 7,098 seats are empty, or 17 percent.
  • Bluffton: 1,452 of 7,489 seats are empty, or 19 percent.
  • Hilton Head: 755 of 4,812 seats are empty, or 16 percent.
  • The district points out that it has already adjusted its construction plans since the recession slowed growth, particularly in the Bluffton area. A sixth Bluffton-area elementary school approved in a 2008 referendum has been delayed, as have plans for a second Bluffton-area high school and a third elementary school on Lady's Island.

    Deciding what to do won't be easy. For example, the district school with the most students over capacity is Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center. It has 463 students, 89 more than its 374-student capacity. But the two nearby island elementary schools have 460 fewer students than they can house. By 2015, the combined enrollment at the three schools is projected to drop by 72 students. What's the best course?

    In northern Beaufort County, Port Royal Elementary has just 282 students and a 306-student capacity. But Beaufort Elementary and Broad River Elementary have a combined excess capacity of 433 students. By 2015, Beaufort Elementary is projected to have 158 fewer students than it has today, 57 percent of its capacity, and Broad River Elementary's enrollment is projected to be 508, 83 percent of its capacity. Port Royal Elementary's enrollment is expected to drop by another 40 students. What's the best course?

    Board chairman Fred Washington said he hoped to see the board decide at the retreat whether the district needs to close schools next fall, but he doesn't expect a vote on closing specific schools.

    That decision should take more time, and it should, as he suggests, take into account the impact on the district's operating budget, the impact on school attendance zones and a response from the federal Office for Civil Rights, which weighs in on attendance zones under the district's voluntary desegregation order.

    We just ask that the decisions ahead be driven by education and economics, not emotion. And they must be if the board wants to maintain its fiscal credibility.