Board must set end point to school shuffle debate

The start of the 2012-13 school year is almost a year away, but the Beaufort County School District is nearing crunch time for hopes of an orderly transition to new attendance boundaries and re-purposed buildings

Decisions about where children will attend classes and what schools will close or expand merit full debate. All facts should be laid out. All interested parties should have their say. School board members, who ultimately are responsible for making these decisions, must keep their ears and minds open.

Absent an emergency, a hasty procedure that precludes any of this is wrong.

But decision-making needs to follow a path marked by sturdy signposts at predictable intervals. Otherwise, the process can be derailed by those who come late to the race or by those so emotionally invested in it that they try to erase the finish line.

We see the former in southern Beaufort County, the latter in northern Beaufort County.

Some parents of students at Okatie Elementary said recently they didn't know their children might attend a different elementary school next year until after it had been decided.

The school board voted 7-4 on Aug. 5 to move students in Rose Hill Plantation from Okatie Elementary to Bluffton Elementary. Students in the Old Carolina community and students who live off Buck Island Road south of Bluffton Parkway also will be moved from Red Cedar Elementary to Bluffton Elementary.

The moves were discussed this summer by a task force examining options for school closures and consolidations. The panel conducted five, sparsely attended public meetings at Okatie Elementary school between June and July before presenting its recommendations to the school board.

Okatie and Red Cedar parents gathered Tuesday at Bluffton Elementary School, some to protest the changes -- more than three months after the first of the task-force meetings and nearly two months after the board vote.

The day before, the School Improvement Council at Robert Smalls Middle School hastily convened a meeting at which about 45 parents heard about rezoning proposals that would keep fifth-graders in elementary schools but shift as many as 400 students to different buildings.

The presentation included some speculation about consequences of those alternatives, including the possibility that one would be rejected by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights. Some who attended the meeting construed the presentation to be a thinly veiled pretense for the school board to revisit a failed motion Sept. 6 that would have moved fifth-graders from Shanklin, Broad River and Shell Point elementary schools to Robert Smalls.

Those suspicions about the district's designs might be correct, but some of those suspicious folks also have pushed the board to reconsider the shuttering of Shell Point next year, the cost-cutting decision that made much of this rezoning necessary in the first place.

Revisiting decisions in light of new information is one thing; rehashing debates until a desired outcome is reached is quite another. Neither the board nor the community should engage in that tactic.

Instead, the board and the district need to count backward from the start of the next school year. How long will it take to move equipment? How much time, if any, will be needed to reconfigure buildings? How long does the Office of Civil Rights typically take to approve new attendance zones? When do bus routes, teacher contracts and a host of other details need to be ironed out?

The answers to those questions suggest an appropriate time to end deliberations. The board should set firm deadlines for information-gathering, public input, and if at all possible, a quiet period to consider all the data and opinions.

After that, we must stop revisiting decisions and start figuring how to execute them.