Whale Branch’s long-awaited new gymnasium got the green light from the Beaufort County school board, which voted Tuesday night to finance the facility via a funding option that doesn’t require voter approval.
The $4.4 million project will be constructed through a portion of the district’s “8 percent” borrowing capacity, which allows school boards to authorize capital improvement bonds below that threshold without having to take it to a ballot measure.
A preliminary timeline would put the Warriors on a new home court in fall 2018.
“We cannot afford, if we’re talking about equity, to delay this any further,” board member Bill Payne said before the vote, recalling 10 years of delays before Whale Branch was built that caused the school’s price tag to go up and scuttled both the larger gym and a performing arts center.
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Though Beaufort County voters approved Whale Branch plans in 2000, the school didn’t come to fruition until 10 years later.
A proposal Tuesday to finance both projects at once through the “8 percent” option had to be withdrawn because it wasn’t an agenda item and district staff hadn’t done a full financial analysis on that project.
The performing arts center, with an estimated $12 million price tag, appears likely to come before the board again in the not-too-distant future.
“I think we also should have a plan for that performing arts center,” board member Joseph Dunkle said. “If not now and not next year, then when? I want (the Whale Branch community) to know when they’re going to get that performing arts center.”
Both the gym and performing arts center were part of the $217 million bond referendum that was defeated by voters in November, forcing the district to re-examine its projects and look at alternative methods of funding.
“It’s really a case of how to pay for them,” said board member Mary Cordray. “We voted to try to find a funding source (via referendum) that didn’t work. Now we’re trying to find another funding source.”
Whale Branch is the only high school in the district without a “competition” gym that meets S.C. High School League requirements for extended postseason competition. With a capacity of just 680, it cannot be used for playoff games beyond the second round.
That means the Warriors, currently No. 5 in the Class 2A boys’ rankings, would have to take home games to Battery Creek or Beaufort High.
Perhaps more importantly, the second gym would alleviate a crowded schedule that runs well into the evening to accommodate four sets of basketball practices. In addition, the gym is a fallback option for several groups when stormy weather arrives.
“The ROTC program,” board member Earl Campbell said. “If it rains, they need someplace to practice. And they use the gym.”
More than a dozen community members sat through nearly four hours of other agenda items before the Whale Branch project came before the panel. Five addressed the board during its public comments period.
“What I beg of you is to do what is right,” said James Moore, lead pastor at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Seabrook. “It is right by all standards to adhere to (the wishes of) the voters of this county. The voters told us to build a complete high school.”