MOUNT PLEASANT — The next knock-down, drag-out school rezoning fight is already heating up in East Cooper, and it won't take effect for more than two years.
No redrawing of attendance lines is ever easy, but the constituent school board for Mount Pleasant schools faces one of the least enviable decisions in the coming years: Where to draw a line between Wando High and the soon-to-be-built Lucy Beckham High.
Wando is the largest high school in the state — 4,000 students and counting — a testament to its strong academic record and to an era of blistering growth in Charleston's wealthy northeastern suburb. Beckham, named for a longtime Wando principal, will have a capacity of just 1,500 on its $94 million campus.
The line, wherever it falls, could cleave neighborhoods in two. It could split friend groups from middle school, wreak havoc on morning traffic patterns, or send athletic talent to a soon-to-be rival football team.
Wednesday night marked a decision point for the Charleston County School District 2 Constituent Board, which approved a new attendance map affecting the town's middle schools in a meeting at the Laing Middle School library.
School rezoning is one of the few decisions delegated to Charleston County's constituent school boards, holdover elected bodies from the years before the school district consolidated.
"You think this is hard? Wait till you get to the 300, 500 kids who don't get the golden Wonka ticket to Beckham High School," board member Chris Nickels quipped after two hours of discussion and debate.
In neighboring Dorchester District 2, longtime Superintendent Joe Pye has overseen plenty of school rezoning decisions in his career. The biggest was the creation of Ashley Ridge High in 2008, which helped end Summerville High's one-time standing as the largest school in the state.
Pye said he has learned a few things about gathering input and making decisions transparently.
For starters, he said, it's best not to draw lines through the middle of neighborhoods, and as a general rule no one should have to travel past a closer school to get to one farther away. And he always strives for diversity.
"You keep it consistent, or it reeks that you're doing it for the wrong reasons," Pye said.
Community input meetings are also crucial in Pye's view. But he limits them to two hours, and he makes sure to publish any feedback and responses on the district website shortly afterward.
Wednesday night in the chilly media center at Laing, the topic at hand was a new attendance map for Moultrie Middle, itself a bone of contention. The board had already considered and rejected four previous maps at spring meetings, and three new ones were up for debate.
For the 35 parents who attended, their concerns were myriad and personal.
Families from the Isle of Palms don't want to drive too far. Others don't want their neighborhoods split up.
Belle Hall parents brought a petition with 1,000 signatures asking to be zoned for Moultrie Middle.
Underlying many of the parents' concerns, some were hoping to get a seat in a smaller, newer high school. The board insisted that the middle school and high school decisions were separate, but some parents assumed that the Moultrie Middle attendance zone would more or less line up with the Beckham zone one day.
After some debate, the board chose "Proposal C" for Moultrie's new attendance map, encompassing the Isle of Palms, Sullivan's Island, and the attendance zones of James B. Edwards Elementary, Mount Pleasant Academy and Whitesides Elementary.
It was a 3-2 decision, with board members Nickels and Trey Tezza casting the dissenting votes. It didn't make everyone happy.
Among the discontented was Kristin White, a Belle Hall resident. She had walked her neighborhood helping to collect the 1,000 signatures for Proposal D1, which would zone her family for Moultrie. In the end, her neighborhood was zoned for Laing anyway.
"We don't believe them anymore because they don't listen to us," White said of the board.