Some students in the Beaufort County School District will notice something new when they return from summer break Monday: mobile classrooms.
After years of working to remove mobiles from schools, the district is reverting to them as a long-term solution to accommodate growth in the Bluffton area, something parents said they preferred over redistricting.
Redistricting, however, is also on the table for the future.
The failure of two bond referendums in recent years — which would have meant millions of dollars for the district to build new and expand existing schools — has left the district with few options for the growing number of students enrolling in Bluffton area schools.
Despite the district’s recommendations, multiple board members voiced their concerns at a work session Aug. 11.
“The thing that I’m struggling with is the idea that we now have a mobile plan to address an overcrowding issue when as a district, we worked hard over the last six years to get rid of mobiles everywhere we could,” said board member Mary Cordray, who represents portions of Hilton Head island and Bluffton. “It’s like an about-face without the board actually taking action to change that philosophy.”
Both Cordray and fellow board member Evva Anderson, whose district includes the Rose Hill, Island West and Hampton Lake neighborhoods in the greater Bluffton and Okatie areas, said they would like the district to present them with other options that could provide a more permanent solution, including the construction of additions at May River High School and River Ridge Academy.
“A plan I’d like to see is one that gives us permanency — a permanent building and safer places for people to be, because that is a concern for the parents in my community,” Anderson said at the Aug. 11 work session.
Over the summer, mobile units were added to Pritchardville Elementary School and River Ridge Academy, the district’s two most crowded schools, and both will begin serving students at the start of the school year Monday.
At Pritchardville Elementary, a six-classroom mobile unit will house six of the school’s seven fifth-grade classes. At River Ridge, an eight-classroom mobile will house the school’s six fourth-grade classes, as well as two of the lower level Montessori classes, according to district spokesperson Jim Foster.
On a tour of the Pritchardville Elementary mobile unit Thursday, Principal Brenda Blue described it as “not your grandma’s modular.”
“When you come in here, it’s not what you expect,” Blue said. “And when you see how nice the rooms are set up and how roomy it feels, I think the students and the parents are going to be excited.”
Robert Oetting, the district’s chief operations officer, said newer versions of a classic mobile classroom allow for enhanced security and an environment that more closely aligns with a brick-and-mortar classroom setting.
Unlike a typical mobile unit, which usually has a door leading from the outside into each classroom, the mobiles at Pritchardville and River Ridge have a long hallway connecting all of the classrooms and only two doors that lead outside. The doors are equipped with cameras, card readers and programmed lock features.
“It is more like typical classroom,” Oetting said. “(Students) can move in between classrooms and for the most part, they’ll be isolated out here, so it’s almost like having a pod concept where everybody in the fifth grade is out here.”
Students will need to leave the mobiles and make the short walk to the main building only a couple times a day for gym class, related arts and lunch, Blue said.
“I feel like we’ve positioned ourselves to be able to let parents know that their children are going to be safe,” she said.
The purchase of the two mobiles units was approved by the Beaufort County Board of Education on December 12 for up to $1.2 million.
Oetting said Thursday that the mobile units cost “a hair over” $1 million, but he will not know the final project cost until mid-September.
Looking toward a five-year plan
In spite of adding mobiles at Pritchardville Elementary and River Ridge Academy for the 2018-19 school year, both schools are still at or above 97 percent capacity for the upcoming school year, according to district enrollment numbers as of Aug. 8.
By 2021 all of the schools in Bluffton will, on average, be at 100 percent capacity, district estimates state.
Since the school board does not intend to hold a referendum this year, the next one might not come until fall 2019.
At that point, if a referendum was held and did pass, the earliest the district could complete a new school would be for the start of the 2021-2022 school year, according to Oetting, the district’s chief operations officer.
To prepare for the overcrowding issues, the district is looking at using mobiles as the immediate solution for next few years.
At a Beaufort County Board of Education work session on Aug. 11, Oetting presented the board with a proposal for a five-year mobile plan.
The plan, which would add 82 mobile classrooms spread out between 12 separate mobile units to Bluffton schools over the next five years, aims to minimize future rezoning during that time period, balance demographics and prevent students from crossing from Bluffton onto Hilton Head, according to Oetting.
The plan includes building 32 mobile classrooms at May River High School, 20 at H.E. McCracken Middle School and 16 at MC Riley Elementary School by the start of the 2022-23 school year, as well as the six already built at Pritchardville Elementary School and the eight built at River Ridge Academy.
It would also require altering school zoning assignments for the 2019-20 school year, an idea that was rejected by the school board for the upcoming year after backlash from parents.
The idea behind the district’s most recent redistricting plan is to move students to schools that have the space to build mobiles.
For instance, while the growth projections indicate River Ridge Academy would need an additional 33 mobile classrooms over the next five years to accommodate students in its current district, there’s not enough room to place all those mobile units on the school grounds, according to Oetting.
“In my opinion, we need to redistrict. And that would be my recommendation, because I don’t believe River Ridge can handle another year with mobiles,” Oetting told the board Aug. 11.
The district will host four public meetings to educate the public and receive feedback from parents and community members in the coming month at May River High School, Bluffton High School, Bluffton Middle School and Hilton Head Island High School. The dates for those meeting have not yet been set.
Oetting and his team plan to present a final recommendation to the school board on Oct 2 with the goal of receiving approval for future funding of the plan by Oct. 16.