Alternative learning program to move to Southside High School

Published 3:20 pm Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Beaufort County Schools alternative learning program will have a new home this fall, moving from the Beaufort County Ed Tech Center to Southside High School.

The decision came in a 7-2 vote by the Beaufort County Board of Education on Tuesday evening after more than a month of looking for solutions to balance the school system’s budget for the coming year.

“For the past five years, the district has used its fund balance to balance the budget on a budget resolution for the upcoming year,” Beaufort County Schools Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman said. “By making this move and some of the other decisions that we’ve made in the district, I think this really stabilizes the district financially.”

Under the plan selected, the program will be housed in its own wing at Southside High School, using seven classrooms to offer a blended learning environment of teachers, facilitators and online instruction.

Voting in favor of the move were board members Terry Williams, Terry Draper, E.C. Peed, Butch Oliver, T.W. Allen, Carolyn Walker and Michael Bilbro. Voting against were Mac Hodges and Eltha Booth. The board agreed to revisit the program next year to see how the transition has worked.

The alternative plan, which would have left the program at its current location, would also have involved cutting at least 10 currently-occupied positions throughout the district and possibly other programs at schools. This would be in addition to not filling 13 positions already left vacant by retirements and resignations.

“The savings would have to come from somewhere, and if the alternative learning program stays at Ed Tech for the 2019-2020 school year, that will require our team to go back over the next month to send fiscal actions to you as a board to consider which positions would then be cut in the budget to get that $600,000 off the budget,” Cheeseman told the board.

According to Cheeseman, the decision will allow the school system to balance its budget for the coming year. Initially, the board found itself facing a shortfall of approximately $2 million in the upcoming year’s budget.

“In totality, the alternative learning program is not the only change that we’ve made,” Cheeseman told the board. “We’ve made a lot of changes over the past two months throughout the district. I think most principals can tell you they’ve already suffered losses to some degree or things that are not coming back. So this is not in isolation, but in addition to.”

While the board decided to move the program, there are still details to be finalized. These include finalizing options for the K-5 and 6-8 alternative learning programs, as well as making adjustments for transportation to Southside.

As for the teachers and staff at Ed Tech, Cheeseman said the school system has paused hiring for positions throughout the district to allow all the current employees at Ed Tech to find jobs at other schools in Beaufort County.

Under BCS policy, two types of students qualify for participation in the alternative learning program: students who voluntarily participate and those who are administratively placed.

While the former might be students who have had difficulty keeping up in school for a variety of reasons, those who are administratively placed may have been reassigned for behavioral issues that might have otherwise resulted in long-term suspension or expulsion.

The students who will move to Southside are those who are voluntary participants in the program. Cheeseman said students with serious disciplinary problems would be considered on a case-by-case basis, with possibilities for homebound learning.

Throughout the process, strong opinions and sentiments in the community have been at the forefront of the Ed Tech decision. During a community forum last week, and at the meeting Tuesday, supporters of the school showed up in force to make their thoughts known. Cheeseman, hearing those concerns, said although the program is moving, it will still hold the same goals.

“We recognize that change is hard, but our commitment is still to the student,” Cheeseman said. “That is unwavering.”

Moving to Southside High School with the program, Ed Tech Principal Victoria Hamill will continue to serve as principal for the alternative learning program. Following the board’s decision, Hamill expressed confidence that the program will continue to help students fulfill their academic goals, regardless of changes in location.

“I know Beaufort County Schools will continue to meet the needs of students, even with budget cuts,” Hamill said. “Even though our location may change, our motto will stay the same — we will rise.”