Top 10: School system shortfall moves alternative learning to Southside

Published 6:34 pm Monday, December 30, 2019

The relocation of the Beaufort County Schools alternative learning program to the campus of Southside High School, and the circumstances surrounding that decision, is the No. 2 top story of 2019.

A significant shortfall in the Beaufort County Schools budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year led to some difficult decisions for the Beaufort County Board of Education in 2019, including the relocation of the BCS alternative learning program from the Ed Tech campus on Bridge Street.

Although the school system had requested an additional $2 million dollars from Beaufort County, the county budget funded the school system at the same level as 2018-19. In early June, as the school system was working to finalize its budget, BCS faced an estimated shortfall of approximately $1.9 million for the 2019-20 fiscal year.

To help cover that shortfall, the BOE considered eliminating 21 positions — eight time-limited teacher assistant jobs and 13 teacher positions due to be vacated by retirement or transfers. The total savings because of those reductions would be around $980,000.

Even with these cuts, however, the Board of Education was still staring down a million-dollar shortfall. As a result, the conversation turned to the Beaufort County Ed Tech Center and the future of the school system’s alternative learning program.

Earlier in the year, a N.C. State University study, requested and paid for by commissioners, suggested a number of possibilities for school closure and consolidation based on projections of declining enrollment headed into the next decade.

As discussions of staffing cuts and potential closures became public, the result was an outpouring of community involvement during meetings of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners and the Beaufort County Board of Education in June.

On June 3, it was standing room only at the Board of Commissioners budget hearing, with speakers, including BCS Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman, urging commissioners to provide additional funding for the school system. Ultimately, commissioners voted 4-3 to pass a 2-cent tax increase for the coming year, with a portion of the increase going to the school system. That brought the shortfall down to approximately $600,000 and allowed BCS to maintain the eight teacher assistant positions previously on the table.

The following week, the Board of Education discussed two possibilities. The first was moving Ed Tech to modular units on the campus of Washington High School. The second involved relocating grades six through eight at S.W. Snowden to an underutilized wing of Southside High School.

While the first conversation had to do with finances, the second stemmed from academic performance issues at S.W. Snowden. The Board of Ed proceeded to hold community forums on the proposals later in June. Both forums drew large crowds, with community members speaking passionately on behalf of their schools.

Ultimately, on June 25, the Board of Education voted 7-2, with Mac Hodges and Eltha Booth dissenting, to move the alternative learning program’s high school students to Southside High School. The alternative learning program’s middle and elementary school programs, meanwhile, were moved to P.S. Jones and John Cotten Tayloe Elementary, respectively.

During the course of the past semester, the high school program, still known as Beaufort County Ed Tech, has settled in well at Southside, according to Cheeseman. He credits both Ed Tech Principal Victoria Hamill and Southside Principal Rick Anderson with facilitating a smooth transition for students.

“Anytime you introduce change, it’s hard for some, especially when you’re changing what tradition has held up in the past,” Cheeseman said. “I think if you get the opportunity to speak with students directly who attend our alternative learning program at Southside, they’ll tell you it’s been a positive outcome for them.”

Moving forward, Cheeseman says the relocation should continue to help the school system financially in the long run. More importantly, however, he says the move has also provided a better learning environment for the students, in everything from additional support from Southside staff and better facilities to having a hot meal in the school’s cafeteria every day.

“When you’re making decisions, not only was that a fiscal decision, but ultimately it became a decision based on what is best for children,” Cheeseman said.