You've got to figure some folks on Sullivan's Island are pretty mad right about now — or at least a little confused.

When Charleston school officials began talking about a new Sullivan's Island Elementary a few years back, some residents asked to keep it small. They were told it wasn't cost effective to run a school for less than 500 students. But over the past couple weeks we've watched the district promise to keep schools on Edisto Island and in McClellanville open — even though neither one has 150 kids.

There are two issues at play here — how to deliver middle-school teaching in rural areas and how small a school gets before you close it.

School board members say they'd like some clarity here, even as they prepare to reverse themselves on a decision to move grades around at the two schools. Trouble is, they're the ones who are supposed to provide the clarity.

A risk of closing?

In McClellanville, the district wants to move seventh- and eighth-graders out of Lincoln High and put them in St. James-Santee Elementary.

But on Edisto, it wants to move sixth-graders out of Jane Edwards Elementary and into Baptist Hill High, which already has seventh- and eighth-graders.

The board voted to do both, but may reconsider soon.

Board members are asking which is better — housing middle schoolers in elementary schools or high schools? Superintendent Nancy McGinley says the issue is keeping those three grades together.

It costs a lot to run a rural school — Lincoln High costs $22,000 per pupil, compared with a district average of about $8,000. Splitting up those grades requires more middle-school-certified teachers, or leaves some with not enough students to teach.

Basically, if the board reverses its decision, it will cost even more to run these schools. And that puts them at greater risk of closing, once a new board — with a new philosophy — comes along.

Support rural schools

Even among the most conservative board members, there is strong support for rural schools.

Board member Elizabeth Moffly says if it costs more to run those schools, so be it. She thinks kids ride the bus too long as it is — and she's right. Closing these schools would put some kids on two-hour bus rides at 5 a.m. Of course, a commitment to small schools makes the Sullivan's Island school decision look odd. But it's apples and oranges.

Sullivan's is part of the Mount Pleasant district, where schools are bursting at the seams. They can't afford to run a bunch of small schools there.

If they did, they couldn't afford to keep places like Lincoln High and Jane Edwards Elementary open, which they apparently plan to do.

McGinley is asking the board for its preferences on middle-school and rural-school policy, and board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats agrees they should make a decision. And then they can decide when, and where, to make exceptions.

Otherwise, the district — or the board — is going to keep contradicting itself.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.