The addition to May River High School was completed in 2021 to provide space for increased numbers of students. The school is again nearing maximum capacity. COURTESY BEAUFORT COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Beaufort  County’s population has increased 18.4% in the past 10 years, growing from 162,233 to a total of 187,117. The growth has had a major impact on student capacity in the county’s education system, particularly in those schools south of the Broad River.

Bluffton area enrollments data from November 2021, part of a county-wide document that was presented to the Beaufort County Board of Education’s operations committee on Jan. 12, shows that both May River and Bluffton high schools are nearing maximum capacity. H.E. McCracken is 50 students above capacity, and Pritchardville Elementary is more than 200 above.

“The district is seeing a return to pre-pandemic growth rates in southern Beaufort County,” said district Superintendent Frank Rodriguez. “Overall, the schools in Bluffton are at or over capacity.”

A new round of facilities inspections and needs assessments are currently underway, said Rodriguez.

“There continues to be a need for additional schools in Bluffton. Impact fees and a referendum bond are both options,” he added.

The subject of student numbers was under discussion during the Jan. 12 meeting of the district’s Operation Department when the 2022 Facilities Master Plan was introduced. This plan is one of two documents that replaces the previous planning process provided under a single document as a five- or 10-year plan. It was scheduled to be presented to the school board at its Jan. 18 meeting, although it may go into deeper discussion at a workshop or special session.

The second document is the Capital Improvement Plan, which covers the status of current projects. That will be presented to the board in March.

Operations Committee Planning Coordinator Carol Crutchfield gave a brief overview of the 165-page document, which is laid out under what the document defines as a three-pronged framework for comprehensive facilities planning that covers programs, student demographics and facilities.

When reviewing the issue of demographics and school capacities, Crutchfield said the ideal scenario is to have the schools hovering around 85% capacity. Included in the current student population section are three years of projections: 2019 pre-COVID projection, 2020 projection showing where there was drop in enrollment, and then 2021 projections. Numbers show that the district is almost at pre-COVID numbers.

“What we’re seeing in terms of trends are those areas that were declining pre-COVID, they are still declining,” said Crutchfield. “District-wide we’re in great shape, but the projection model looks at bursts – who’s moving in – and those numbers coming in have gotten smaller every year.”

The decrease isn’t hitting the Bluffton Cluster, which includes Bluffton and May River high schools, Bluffton, Okatie, Pritchardville and Red Cedar elementary schools plus two Early Childhood Centers, H.E. McCracken and Bluffton Middle School plus River Ridge Academy.

Bluffton schools have a total capacity of 10,573 students. The current student population is 9,510, as of attendance data taken 45 days into the school year, and the report projects a 3.1% growth in the next five years.

At the moment there are no plans for any rezoning or changes in student assignment. In 2018-19, Crutchfield reminded attendees, the school board gave the committee the ability to assign brand new neighborhoods that didn’t have any students in them to schools that had the ability to expand or were capable of incorporating mobile classrooms into their campuses.

“Now houses are being sold, students are starting to move in, so we are going to continue to track those, and see what the effect is until we are able to build more schools, and make those changes in student assignment in the future,” Crutchfield added.

Both McCracken and Pritchardville are using mobile units, and Pritchardville, built in 2010  was not – according to the data report –designed for expansion. Eight additional mobile classrooms will be set up this summer at Pritchardville to supplement the 10 already in use.

The core facilities at both schools, the report notes, are inadequate. The district defines the core facility of a school as all of the non-classroom spaces. That means student growth is out-pacing school resources such as the cafeterias, auditoriums, physical education facilities and libraries.

One solution – for at least Pritchardville – was classroom expansion at the May River High School campus.

“We do foresee a need in the future for additional high school capacity in Bluffton. Until a new facility is constructed, mobile units will be used to accommodate student growth. Both schools currently have mobile units in use. The district has plans to add to additional modular classrooms at Pritchardville this summer,” Rodriguez noted. “Inactive mobile units will be put back into active service at McCracken Middle School.”

County voters refused to pass two previous referendums, leaving a gap of 11 years when citizens approved a $162,735,000 bond in 2008. The initial needs assessment from the 2019 bond identified a total of $629 million in projects that would bring the system up to speed with, among other items, aging facilities, rapidly changing technology, and an increased requirement to improve school security.

The school system is currently midway through completion of the projects that were covered under the $345 million bond referendum county voters approved in 2019. The current referendum projects include improvements district-wide in safety and security, and technology and infrastructure.

All county school projects are on track to be completed late 2023 or early 2024.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran reporter living in Bluffton.