Nearly a year after last fall’s failed referendum, Superintendent Jeff Moss is again urging the Beaufort County Board of Education to ask voters for money to keep pace with growing enrollment and address aging facilities, a measure that some school board members say would require more credibility on the part of the board and district.
Moss presented the district’s overcapacity problem to the Beaufort County Board of Education at a work session last weekend, but it’s not a new issue. In the 2016-17 school year, 11 schools were already at 90 percent capacity or above.
Last November, voters shot down the board’s request for more than $300 million in new sales tax revenue to pay for new schools and make improvements to existing ones. For some voters, the ballot wording was confusing. For others, the fractious school board was an issue impacting their decision at the polls.
“We need to have a well put-together referendum for it to pass,” board member Christina Gwozdz said. “We need credibility for it to pass and I think we lack it right now.”
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One way to increase credibility, she said, is by hiring a forensic auditor to review the district’s credit card spending, a proposal she endorsed last week at the board’s Finance and Operation committee.
In response to Gwozdz, board member Mary Cordray said, “Board members need to work to improve credibility, not feed the notion that we don’t have it.”
Cordray was one of two committee members, along with board member Bill Payne, who voted against the motion for a forensic audit, which passed 3-2 and will go to the full board for a vote.
Board member JoAnn Orischak sided with Gwozdz, arguing that a forensic audit “would help improve our chances” of passing a referendum.
Even if a referendum fails, the district is at a point where some long-term decisions must be made — and soon.
A school operating at 85 percent capacity is ideal, said Robert Oetting, the district’s facilities, planning and construction officer.
Middle and high schools in southern Beaufort County will be operating at 88 percent capacity in the 2017-18 school year.
In five years, Bluffton and Hilton Head’s middle schools will be operating at 103 percent capacity, enrollment projections show. The three area high schools will be at 99 percent capacity. By 2026, capacity will approach 125 percent in both middle and high schools south of the Broad River.
“(This is) a rosy picture of what’s coming and it’s probably going to be worse than that,” Oetting told the board.
And historically, the district’s projections have been on the conservative side, he added.
One solution, to build mobile classrooms that sit adjacent to schools, was quickly shot down by most board members. Some opposed it for the isolated learning environment, others for the “temporary Band-Aid” it would provide.
A less expensive option, redistricting, involves shuffling students at overburdened schools to those with more space. In some cases, that could involve shuttling students across the Broad River or sending Bluffton elementary students to Hilton Head and Hilton Head middle school students to Bluffton.
(This is) a rosy picture of what’s coming and it’s probably going to be worse than that.
Robert Oetting, Beaufort County School District’s facilities, planning and construction officer
Board member David Striebinger suggested presenting the public with a redistricting model before putting a referendum on the ballot. This would show voters where their child would be sent if no additional schools are built.
“We have an audience of taxpayers,” he said. “We need to look at every possible option. If they don’t vote for the referendum, (show them) this is what happens.”
Asked by board members about a timeline, Moss said it would be beneficial to have the referendum on a ballot by the end of the calendar year.
Moss will present various redistricting models to the board at its Sept. 19 meeting. The meeting will be held 6 p.m. at the Bluffton library.