Three years ago, Jeff Moss, then superintendent of a N.C. school district, was accused of overbuilding schools. Today, Moss, who now heads the local schools district, is proposing that voters give $480 million to the district for new schools and other needs.
As superintendent in Beaufort County, N.C., Moss oversaw school construction from 2004 to 2009 that resulted in about 2,000 extra classroom seats in a county with minimal growth, according to a 2012 architectural study and longtime county commissioner Hood Richardson.
The overbuilding -- which commissioners said was equivalent to the size of two schools -- is still being felt in the school system today, Richardson claimed when contacted last week.
"Anybody that's telling you they don't see overbuilding in Beaufort County (N.C.) schools, they're in la la land," he said. "And we're going to be this way for the next 50 to 75 years."
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Moss denies the allegation, arguing the study in question did not take into account the location of the extra seats, most of which were on the opposite side of Pamlico River from the district's high-growth schools.
"Richardson wanted students bused, (carrying) them across a river through flood zones to get them to another school where there's a vacant seat," Moss said. "His plan would not have satisfied in my mind the educational expectation not to have kids travel on a bus for an hour to get home from school."
Moss added that he and Richardson frequently disagreed when Moss was superintendent. In 2006, the school district, led by Moss, sued the county, claiming Richardson and the other county commissioners had failed to properly fund the school district for the previous school year. A jury agreed, ultimately ordering the county to give the district almost as much as it had asked for, a total of $10.2 million. County commissioners' tried and failed to appeal the decision, according to North Carolina court records.
The legal battled strained the relationship between the school system and county.
"(Because I was) superintendent, (Richardson) lumps me in with all of that that went on," Moss said.
Richardson has also been critical of Moss allowing his wife, Darlene Moss, to be hired to a newly created curriculum coordinator job in Beaufort County, N.C., just a few months after Jeff Moss became superintendent of the North Carolina district in 2004.
In September, after Darlene Moss was hired to a newly restructured administrative position in this school district, Richardson told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette the superintendent seemed to have "a judgment problem," adding, "I will say I'm not surprised he did it again."
It remains to be seen if the N.C. allegations of overbuilding will affect Moss' new effort to convince the local school board to put a $480 million proposal before voters next November. The proceeds would paid for by a one-percent increase in the county's sales tax for 15 years.
It's nearly as much money as the public has approved in all five schools referendums since 1988, a combined $495.4 million
When told of the plan, Richardson said taxpayers should independently vet Moss' projections and recommendation.
"You're never going to have any peace in your school system" under Moss, Richardson said this month. "He doesn't know what he's doing."
The N.C. report was created in 2012 by Jimmy Hite of Greenville, N.C.-based Hite Associates, the same company this school district hired to design May River High School. Richardson and a second commissioner requested the study because they were concerned about the costs and scope of school construction under Moss' leadership following the passage of a $33 million bond referendum.
Sarah Hodges, a spokesperson for the North Carolina school district, echoed Moss, stating that the issue of overbuilding was a misunderstanding of statistics. Reached Friday, school board chair Mary Cordray said she'd been contacted by Hodges and was not concerned.
"I'm not focused on Beaufort County, North Carolina," Cordray said. "I'm focused on Beaufort County, S.C."
She added that the board is still weighing all of its options for raising funds for capital projects and has not settled on a sales-tax referendum.
Board member Joseph Dunkle, representing Port Royal, said he was not aware of the Beaufort County, N.C., issue and did not want to speculate about Richardson's accusation.
He said he was confident in Moss' enrollment projections, which are created by a software program.
"We definitely need to expand some of our facilities," Dunkle said. "I think when we look and do our projections 10 and 20 years out, we're trying to build the capacity we need."
Under the sales-tax proposal, about 55 percent of the money would go toward paying down the school district's existing and future debt -- which Moss says would reduce property taxes by one-third -- and could possibly fund future capital projects.
"We don't know what the needs will be in 15 years but we know there'll be needs," Moss said, adding that the county's growth could skyrocket following the eventual opening of the Jasper Ocean Terminal, and with the expansion of local military programs.
About $210 million of the sales-tax revenue would go toward two new schools in Bluffton, 10 school-expansion projects and several major school upgrade projects, including improvements to roofs and heating and air conditioning systems. Another $7 million would purchase land in southern Beaufort County to potentially build another school.
Some board members have asked Moss if he would consider postponing the referendum to alleviate competition with the county, which is working to put its own sales-tax referendum on the same ballot.
However, the superintendent has argued that the need for space and upgrades is urgent.
This year, Coosa and Whale Branch elementary schools, Hilton Head Island Early Childhood Center and H.S. McCracken Middle school are expected to exceed capacity. Ten others are projected to be at or above 90 percent.
Enrollment in the district has grown 15 percent since 2010-2011, and will grow another 9.6 percent by 2024-2025.
That means administrators must find seats for about 2,100 more students than the nearly 21,750 enrolled this year, according to the projections.
"Where are you going to put those kids if you don't start planning now?" Moss said. "If you wait until the school is overcrowded, then you're going to have to bring in (portable classrooms) or something for two yeas while you build the school that's required for your projections."
While there's room to spare in northern Beaufort County -- Beaufort Elementary School as well as Beaufort and Whale Branch middle schools are about half empty this year, according to district figures -- that extra space doesn't match the county's growth.
Enrollment in the district's Beaufort and Whale Branch clusters are projected to drop below their 2010-2011 head counts by 2024-2025, while the Bluffton cluster is expected to reach 10,827 students, about 28 percent higher than this year.
Members of the finance committee who heard Moss' recommendation Nov. 11 supported the plan.
They voted to discuss the referendum further at a future school board meeting in February, after the special election fills former chairman Bill Evans’ vacant seat.
Raw Beaufort County enrollment data
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.
- School district may ask voters for nearly $480 million, November 16, 2015
- School board plans may interfere with new Beaufort County sales-tax referendum, October 20, 2015
- Beaufort County schools chief accused of nepotism before, September 19, 2015