Emotional pleas can't trump hard numbers

Parents and employees at Shell Point Elementary School reacted predictably to news their school might be closed to help the Beaufort County School District make ends meet.

Their concerns are understandable, and the Board of Education should take pains to consider them.

However, their concerns also illustrate the political pressures that can lead elected officials to over-build and over-spend in the first place. We complain about inefficiency when the district's schools are at 75 percent capacity overall, but the cow that belongs to us becomes sacred when someone suggests thinning it from the herd.

In flush times, it's easy to quiet critics by giving them what they want. In lean times, we see the price of such indulgence.

Ultimately, closing Shell Point Elementary might not be the best way to help close an anticipated $4 million budget shortfall. But the school's advocates will have to do better than a quickly constructed Facebook page and the emotional pleas made at Tuesday's board meeting.

District staff considered many factors before putting Shell Point and the St. Helena Early Learning Center on a list of suggested closings, including enrollment, capacity, growth potential, building condition, building age, distance to other public schools and the number of students affected. The staff also considered the marketability of the property for sale or lease and requirements from other organizations, such as the federal Office for Civil Rights and S.C. Department of Education.

That attention to detail will help the board make a very informed decision.

Those who would call this an injustice must demonstrate flaws in the staff's methodology or logic, not cast them as a bunch of meanies or appeal to the board's sentimentality.

For its part, the school board should steel its resolve and remember that placating noisy constituencies helped create this problem.

The percentage of unused space in the Whale Branch Early College High School and Battery Creek High School clusters in northern Beaufort County is unacceptable. At 42 percent and 38 percent, respectively, they are emblematic of what happens when prudence bows to parochial politics.

Whale Branch was built in large part because a small, rural constituency asserted that it was owed a school building. Never mind the consultants -- paid for but ignored by this board and its predecessors -- who predicted the glut of empty desks that would follow.

Ripples of these decisions are being felt now in Shell Point, but it's not clear the board understands this.

Ignoring their own role in this situation, board members suggested during Tuesday's meeting that inequitable state-funding formulas are the reason a school must close. Board Vice Chairman Bob Arundell laid blame on Beaufort County Council's refusal to raise school taxes this budget cycle -- and sicced an emotional group of parents on their council representatives. Regardless of revenue, it is wasteful to continue operating a school system at 75 percent capacity.

At least the even tone of Board Chairman Fred Washington Jr. was encouraging. He reminded people "some tough decisions will have to be made. I am not sure what they will be, but I know they have to be made."

He is correct. This will not be pretty -- or easy.

And some constituency will complain loudly when its cow gets skewered, whether a school is closed, a program ended or jobs eliminated to restore fiscal balance.

Cuts should not be indiscriminate or without due deliberation. But the pain they entail is the price of political expedience and the imprudence it spawns.