Plans for a $12.4 million performing arts center at Whale Branch Early College High School, which went from discussion under “8 percent” funding to a referendum item, returns as a standalone proposal and could be approved when the Beaufort County school board meets Tuesday.
The board also will discuss a possible earlier start to next school year, taking advantage of a one-time tweak to state law to accommodate a major solar eclipse scheduled to pass over South Carolina on the current first day for students.
Tuesday’s meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the Bluffton library.
Debate over the Whale Branch arts center has swirled for two months, as one of two missing pieces from the high school’s original 2010 construction that went from the back burner to the forefront.
A $4.4 million competition gym, with capacity to allow the Warriors to host state playoff games, got fast-tracked Feb. 7 with funding under the district’s “8 percent” borrowing capacity that doesn’t require voter approval.
That project was approved 6-2, with two abstentions, but the pricier arts center remained a step behind. Superintendent Jeff Moss told board members at a subsequent meeting that auditorium also could be financed under the “8 percent” mechanism with minimal impact.
Things changed, though, when the board last met two weeks ago. With a standing-room crowd at the Beaufort City Council chamber and more than a dozen members of the Whale Branch community urging the board to move forward with the arts center, it instead was presented as part of a proposed $120 million bond referendum to finance a five-year building plan.
Moss’ outline of the proposal also came with a caveat — if the referendum fails at the ballot box, the board once again take up the prospect of building the auditorium with “8 percent” funds.
Though the switch got a nod from vice chair Earl Campbell, whose district includes the Whale Branch community, not everyone in the room was satisfied.
“I don’t think this performing arts center should be on the referendum,” said the Rev. James Moore, lead pastor at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. “He has stated it can be built with 8 percent money. You ought to do what is right.”
Two weeks later, the proposal is back under the 8 percent umbrella.
Board chair Patricia Felton-Montgomery did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
The board also will revisit the 2017-18 school calendar, which set Aug. 21 as the start of classes during a February meeting. Under state law, schools cannot open their doors to students before the third Monday in August.
But with South Carolina in the direct path of the eclipse that will take place that day, the state legislature since has approved a one-time exemption that allows school to begin Aug. 17 if districts choose.
Moss is a proponent of the change, suggesting at the board’s last meeting that teacher work days now set for Aug. 17-18 be repositioned elsewhere in the fall semester. One would be on Aug. 21, keeping students home on the day of the eclipse, with the other to be determined.