School board must keep school closings on table

Advocates for Shell Point Elementary School remain on tenterhooks after the Beaufort County Board of Education on Tuesday did not decide on whether to reject closing schools as a way to bridge anticipated budget shortfalls.

In fact, it's not clear such a decision will be made at all.

The anxiety that brings for those with emotional, professional and political investments in Shell Point Elementary is unfortunate. But that anxiety is a side effect of a necessary exercise. Public education is not free -- or even cheap. And the school district's books must be balanced.

Given the vocal opposition aroused when a district analysis suggested Shell Point was the district's most expendable school, board chairman Fred Washington Jr. showed courage by voting against a motion to take off the table all school closings. That measure failed on a 5-5 tie Jan. 8, with Earl Campbell -- who likely would have supported the motion -- absent.

The vocal opposition to closing was out in force for Tuesday's meeting, and Washington again demonstrated backbone when he invoked a parliamentary rule that prevented the issue from coming up for another vote, this time with Campbell present.

But Robert's Rules of Order notwithstanding, closing a school should remain an option, even if the board decides to take Shell Point off the chopping block. The simple reason: The district has far more classroom capacity than it needs, and shuttering a building or part of building could provide significant savings to help close a budget gap that could be as large as $4 million this year and $7 million next year.

Of course, there is another way to balance the books -- raise property taxes.

And if that is the end the board seeks, Washington has shown shrewdness to match his courage. The Beaufort County Council denied a tax hike for the school district last year; and the council will be no more likely to swallow the bitters in fiscal 2011-12 if the board hasn't given due consideration to equally unpalatable possibilities.

The impact on the Shell Point community or any other shuttered school must be considered. But that is an undesirable possibility that must be weighed against other possibilities, many of them even more undesirable.

In these financially challenging days, budgets do not get balanced when those deciding think in terms of what they're not willing to eliminate.