The long-sought performing arts center at Whale Branch Early College High School would be front and center in a $120 million bond referendum recommended by Beaufort County Superintendent Jeff Moss — with a caveat attached.
Should the referendum to finance a five-year capital plan fail at the polls, Moss told board members Tuesday night, the arts center should be built anyway through its “8 percent” borrowing capacity previously discussed that doesn’t require voter approval.
The crux would be to build the arts center and a previously approved second Whale Branch gymnasium at the same time, earning a nod from its chief proponent in board member Earl Campbell, who at the last meeting had advocated for the 8 percent solution and told the board, “It’s time to stop kicking us in the butt (on Whale Branch).”
Campbell caused a bit of a stir Tuesday night when he referenced an email exchange with Moss asking if both the auditorium and gym could start construction in the next two years. He was told they not only could but should as a cost-saving function.
“That’s what he gave to me,” Campbell said, “and I’m going to hold him to that. He said both should be built at the same time.”
That prompted a question of whether Campbell and Moss had struck any sort of backroom deal.
“There was no negotiation, no agreement, no behind doors (wrangling),” Moss said. “I answered his question, just as I would for any (board member).”
Whale Branch is the only high school in the district without an arts facility, a sore point for the largely African-American community on the county’s far north outskirts.
The school itself was the subject of a decade of legal wrangling that eventually priced the project out of constructing the auditorium and second gym when it finally was built in 2010.
In the five-year plan presented Tuesday night, the $12.4 million arts center is slotted for construction in 2020. Moss noted, though, that any project’s timetable could be moved up if bond authority was already secured.
Dozens of Whale Branch supporters packed the meeting chambers Tuesday night, standing along the outer walls and spilling into the foyer for latecomers to watch the proceedings via TV. Fifteen of the 16 speakers during the public comment period urged the board to get moving on the arts center.
Among those speaking were Whale Branch principal Mona Lise Dickson and counterparts Chad Cox (Whale Branch Middle) and Lynn Singleton (Whale Branch Elementary), band director Kathryn Cooke and chorus director Valerie Powers, former state education Superintendent Barbara Nielsen and Beaufort High’s 10-time state champion track coach Herbert Glaze.
Currently, school performances must be held in the school gym or cafeteria or taken to Battery Creek’s auditorium.
“That’s not equal; that’s discrimination,” retired teacher Lenora Henry said as some audience members applauded. “Why are we still talking? Let’s get to building.”
The Rev. James Moore, lead pastor at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Dale who has been among the most outspoken to get the auditorium fast-tracked, said, “I don’t think this performing arts center ought to be on the referendum. I do not concur with the superintendent. He has stated it can be built with 8 percent money. You ought to do what is right. It is morally right for you to do everything you can to correct the injustice that has taken place.”
There was a moment of levity when Xavier Pierce, a Whale Branch freshman, faced the board with a point-blank question.
“I’d like to ask all of you for your most brutally honest answer,” Pierce said. “Do you all think we can kill two birds with one stone and build the gym and auditorium for the 2017-18 school year?”
After a lengthy pause, Moss broke the silence. “There’s no way to build it that quick,” he said.
“All right. Two years,” Pierce countered.