Voters have said “no” to bond and sales-tax referendums to pay for new schools and other projects in Beaufort County, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get built.
The Beaufort County Board of Education has at least four options for getting it all done, according to a draft capital improvement plan presented during its work session in Beaufort on Friday. They range from the lengthy — like deferring maintenance for years on end — to the risky — like placing a bond referendum before voters in the spring and a sales-tax referendum on the ballot in 2018.
Voters shot down the district’s preferred method — borrowing $217 million and using revenue from a new, 10-year sales tax to pay for the new debt — during the Nov. 8 general election. The board eventually will need to adopt a new plan to complete its capital projects, like building new schools in Bluffton, renovating and adding on to its existing schools and fixing roofs and HVAC systems.
Friday’s proposal offers four options to pay for $217 million worth of capital projects:
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▪ Defer and re-prioritize, and pay for all projects with the $20 million the district issues in bonds — and pays off — each year. This method, which was not intended for long-term use, could cause a tax increase of 10 to 25 mils over the school board’s current millage rate of 31.71.
▪ Put a $217 million bond referendum before voters in the spring to fund the next 10 years’ needs. The school board would need to increase its millage rate to about 36.5.
▪ Put a $124.5 million bond referendum before voters in the spring to fund the next five years’ needs. The school board would need to increase its millage to about 34.5.
▪ Put a $124.5 million bond referendum before voters in the spring AND a 1-percent sales tax referendum before voters in November 2018 to fund the remaining five years’ of needs and any additional needs that arise before then.
Superintendent Jeff Moss told the board he didn’t expect a decision Friday, but that the sooner it adopts a plan the better. It’s not clear where most school board members stand or when they will next take up the issue.
While some members, like Joseph Dunkle, think it should wait until two newly elected representatives take office in February, others disagree.
“The projects are all there,” board member Geri Kinton said. “I don’t know what holding off on the conversation would accomplish.”
Before presenting his draft plan, Moss identified what he called two “obstacles” to the capital project questions’ passage: a “lack of commitment” from the board and public, and “confusion on ballots.” He stated that the district’s capital plan needs to have full board support, noting that all past successful referendum issues had support from at least 10 of the 11 school board members.
Laura Bush, a longtime member leaving the board this year, noted that she experienced those successful referendums firsthand. Each of them had “board buy-in” as well as a large, independent marketing campaign to educate the public.
“You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you’re not together as a group,” she said.
Two board members, Michael Rivers and David Striebinger, opposed placing the educational sales tax on the ballot when the board voted in April. A third member, JoAnn Orischak, was absent then but has often criticized the plan.
On Friday, Striebinger said he still has a different take on the referendums’ failures than most of the board. He attributes the failures to a lack of trust in the body and the superintendent, stemming from the board’s handling of Moss’ nepotism scandal last year for which he admitted guilt to two ethics violations in August.
“I think it was a message sent but not received,” Striebinger said.