School board kicking can down the road

Leafing to a dog-eared page of its playbook, the Beaufort County Board of Education countered a tough defense of the status quo at its April 12 meeting with an all-too-familiar strategy.

It punted on third down.

Perhaps thinking that if they just ignore the problem long enough, the shouting will go away, board members voted to leave Beaufort High School's attendance zone intact for at least the next two years. A shift was being considered as a way to more evenly distribute enrollment among the three district high schools in northern Beaufort County. But it met vocal opposition from parents who don't want their children to attend Battery Creek or Whale Branch Early College high schools.

The vote came just weeks after the board reacted to another perturbed constituency, taking off the table any possibility of closing a school to narrow a budget shortfall despite extra classroom space districtwide.

The board simultaneously faces near-capacity enrollment in one high school and under-capacity enrollment in two others -- largely the result of a school built to quiet yet another segment of the community with a costly sense of entitlement.

In fairness, not all board members held office when the decision was made to build the Whale Branch high school in a sparsely populated area of the county, against the advice of the school district's own consultant.

But that episode should be a lesson to current board members: Ignoring trouble and good advice might appear to make everything all right for a while, but it only makes problems more difficult to solve down the road.

With that in mind, greet with a dash of skepticism Superintendent Valerie Truesdale's assurance that overcrowding at Beaufort High will be relieved by the board's earlier decisions to restrict out-of-zone transfers to Beaufort High and to move all students in the Beaufort Elementary zone to Battery Creek.

It's true that Beaufort High, with a capacity of 1,595 students, now serves 1,541, down from about 1,700 last school year. But the source of the enrollment imbalance and parents' discontent has not truly been addressed. That source is the perception -- justified or not -- that Battery Creek and Whale Branch are lower-quality schools. A military-style program at Battery Creek and practical, high-tech instruction at Whale Branch could help reverse that perception.

Until then, the pressure applied by parents to the school board might take another form, but it will not abate. In the end, parents want high-quality schools, and they want them conveniently located. Those are reasonable demands, although too often, parents want someone else to bear the cost of meeting them.

Meanwhile, another problem approaches on the board's flank.

The board briefly discussed capacity concerns at Bluffton schools on Tuesday and at its weekend attendance zone work session in March. But the Bluffton issues haven't received the same attention as attendance boundaries in northern Beaufort County.

District data indicate all schools in the Bluffton cluster will be at capacity by 2015, and middle and high schools could reach capacity earlier -- in other words, before today's freshman class graduates.

Board members would do well to listen to the numbers the staff is whispering in their ears; the message could spare them a lot of shouting a few years from now.