COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT FACES RAPID GROWTH, POPULATION SHIFTS
STORY AND PHOTOS BY TONY KUKULICH
There are any number of challenges that school district administrators face every day and chief among the issues facing the Beaufort County School District is accommodating the explosive growth that has taken place in the county in recent years. Matching the district’s capacity to educate students to the number of students enrolled is a careful balancing act.
“There’s a lot of data to digest,” said Carol Crutchfield, BCSD planning coordinator. “Enrollment and capacity are not simple topics.”
The BCSD serves approximately 22,500 students in five early-childhood centers, 17 elementary schools, seven middle schools, and five high schools. The district is broken up into five geographic zones: Battery Creek, Beaufort, Bluffton, Hilton Head and Whale Branch. From 2010 to 2020, the total number of students in the district increased 12%.
Comparing year-over-year enrollment numbers for schools across the district reveals something of a dichotomy. Many schools north of the Broad River are losing students, while schools south of the Broad River are gaining students.
The district’s Facilities Master Plan published in January 2022 notes that in the 2016-2017 school year schools in the northern part of the county accounted for 42% of the district’s total student population. Just five years later, they account for 38% of the population. Further, the district predicts that by the 2026-2027 school year only 34% of the district’s students will be in the northern district zones.
Meanwhile, the student population in the Bluffton zone is swelling. Currently 45% of students reside in Bluffton, and in five years, more than half of all district students (51%) will reside in that single zone.
When Beaufort County Treasurer Maria Walls spoke to the BCSD Ad Hoc Bluffton Committee about growth rates in the Bluffton area during a Feb. 17 meeting, she noted growth rates there are still increasing at a high rate.
“We’re not just increasing,” she said. “We’re increasing faster.”
The BCSD attempts to manage the utilization of its facilities at 85% of a building’s total capacity. But Hilton Head Island High School is operating at 97% building utilization, while H.E. McCracken Middle School is at 105%, and Pritchardville Elementary School is operating at a staggering 127% building utilization.
“It makes for a tough learning environment when the classes are overcrowded,” said Freddie Lawton Jr., BCSD capital programs education manager. “Some students may have different learning styles or disabilities that are impacted. Class size has a huge impact. Some classes may have 15 students. If you pack that same class with 28 students, how much learning can you really get done when you have to deal with so many other variables in the classroom?”
Overcrowding also impacts core facilities like cafeterias and media centers forced to handle more students and more use than they were designed for, Crutchfield added. Without sufficient classroom space, related arts teachers are sometimes forced to put their teaching materials on carts and move from classroom to classroom, which can impact teacher satisfaction.
OPTIONS FOR NEW LAND
The district is relying on modular buildings to add capacity at some schools including River Ridge Academy, May River High School and PES. Installation of an eight-unit modular building is planned for the PES site to augment a six-unit building added in 2018. However, according to the Facilities Master Plan, there is a need for future schools in the Bluffton area. Obtaining the land to build new schools is a challenge.
The district has space on the May River High School site to accommodate an elementary and a middle school. Additionally, the Okatie Elementary School site has a 22-acre undeveloped plot of land.
According to the district’s master plan, “After that, BCSD does not have land banked for future schools. The availability of land in the Bluffton area is limited and disappearing quickly to residential and commercial developments. BCSD has needs for a school beyond the two schools proposed on the May River High School property. The 22 acres at OES would not be large enough for a conventional high school or middle school. It is always recommended to purchase land prior to the need so as not to be in a desperate position for land when ready to build a school.”
As of Monthly’s deadline the BCSD Board of Education has not formally discussed the Facilities Master Plan. That discussion is planned for April. Actions previously approved as part of the $344 million 2019 referendum include funds to renovate Hilton Head Middle School. Additionally, the referendum funded the development of plans to either renovate or replace Hilton Head Island High School, though it did not provide funding for construction.
Funding would have to be obtained through a future referendum.