A decade has passed since the last successful Beaufort County Board of Education referendum.
In 2008, voters agreed to let the district borrow $162.7 million for a long list of projects, including two new schools, a high school auditorium, two Early Childhood Learning Centers, land for four schools and maintenance upgrades at schools throughout the county.
A slim margin of just 422 “yes” votes led to its passage. A total of 10,022 voters cast ballots.
On Saturday, voters will be asked once again to let the district borrow money — $76 million this time — raising the question of how well the district spent tax dollars the last time.
All but two of the projects came in on or under budget, according to a third quarter financial report for fiscal year 2016. One of those cost nearly double what the district estimated, while the other — a major building project — cost about $6 million more and was built three years later than planned.
The savings from the overall list of projects meant the district borrowed less than what they asked for in the 2008 referendum, according to district spokesman Jim Foster.
The first cost overrun, an upgrade of the band and drama rooms at H.E. McCracken Middle School, cost nearly double what district officials estimated. The $373,000 project ultimately cost $636,000, records show.
But it's unclear why the project's cost doubled.
"The key people involved in the McCracken project are no longer with the school district," Foster wrote in an email. "We’ll need more time to determine what factors went into the original referendum estimate and how the final project differed from the original concept."
The second overrun, the construction of River Ridge Academy, cost roughly $32 million — about $6.5 million more than what voters approved in 2008.
District officials attributed this to both inflation and expansion of the project, which was originally designed to be an elementary school.
Board members voted on a K-8 grade configuration in 2013, which meant features for middle school grades needed to be added to the project's design. For example, athletic fields were added, a cost district officials said was previously unaccounted for.
Leading up to the 2008 referendum, district officials told the public the school that became River Ridge would open in 2012. But the 2008 recession led to fewer people moving into the Bluffton area. The board put construction of the school on hold.
The school opened in time for the 2015-16 school year, three years later than planned and three years of inflation district officials said was not factored into the estimate provided to the public in the 2008 referendum.
Still, the majority of other referendum projects came in on or below their estimate.
Pritchardville Elementary, which opened in 2010 as planned, came in about $1 million under budget, according to the district’s 2016 quarterly financial reports.
The 2008 land purchases, in particular, proved cheaper than estimated in the referendum because of a lagging real estate market and because the landowners believed the presence of a school increased the value of their development, according to a 2008 story published in The Island Packet.
District officials estimated $26.6 million for the New Riverside site, which houses May River High School and can fit two additional schools. The district paid $11.3 million for that land, according to the 2016 financial report.
Nearly $14.8 million was included in the referendum for the site that now houses River Ridge Academy. Its actual cost was about $3.4 million.
The district also spent $1.9 million to buy land for a new elementary school on Lady's Island. The district still owns the property, but has no plans for it currently.
"That purchase was made to give the Board an additional option to deal with potential future growth on Lady’s Island," Foster wrote in an email.