Beaufort County voters were unmoved by the Beaufort County Board of Education’s request for more than $300 million in new sales tax revenue to pay for new schools, make improvements to existing ones and reduce property taxes.
They soundly defeated two proposals on Tuesday’s ballot: one to allow the district to borrow $217 million for the work and a second to increase the county’s sales tax by 1 percent.
The bond question was failing 54.63 percent to 45.37 percent and the sales tax was failing 59.19 to 40.81 at 2:50 a.m. Wednesday with 91 of 92 precincts reporting.
For some voters, the two school district proposals were a referendum on the school board itself, which has faced criticism for its handling of the superintendent’s nepotism scandal in November 2015 and its apparent dysfunction since then.
Mike and Barbara Garrigan of Hilton Head Island said those problems impacted their decision at the polls Tuesday.
“I feel like the board has been really remiss in its duties,” Barbara Garrigan said. Mike Garrigan added that he thought the projects seemed too expensive and the sales tax increase would last for too long — 10 years.
Many others at the polls Tuesday said they were unaware of or confused by the questions. Some told reporters they were unsure how they had voted just moments earlier or that they had to spend an inordinate amount of time reading the questions.
“You almost have to be a lawyer to understand them,” said Darwin Cleveland of St. Helena Island, who voted for the bond proposal but against the educational sales tax as a compromise. He wanted to support education but disliked that there were far fewer projects in northern Beaufort County than in the southern part.
He wasn’t alone in splitting his vote.
The school district’s bond referendum had slightly more support than the educational sales tax. About 45.37 percent, or about 29,955 of 66,024 people, voted “yes” to allowing the school board to borrow $217 million to carry out its list of capital projects.
That’s compared to only 40.81 percent, or about 27,692 of 67,863 people, who voted “yes” to the sales tax.
Now that both questions have been struck down, the school district will have to scramble to complete a new plan for capital improvements so it can continue to keep pace with growing enrollment and aging facilities. Its plans included the construction of two new schools in Bluffton and additions or renovations to nine existing schools.
The election results will be a disappointment to some who voted for those projects, like Del Marie McDonald of Lady’s Island.
“Education is the future of our country,” she said. “I think if we don’t support them and do what we can, it’s going to fall apart.”
Superintendent Jeff Moss has said failure to carry out its projects could force the district to increase class sizes, add modular classrooms, redistrict or change which schools serve which grades.
Attempts to reach Moss and board chairwoman Mary Cordray were unsuccessful late Tuesday.