Will smaller bites be easier for Beaufort County voters to digest?
Rebuffed in November on a 10-year, $217 million building plan, the county’s Board of Education is studying a draft proposal that would go back before the electorate this summer with a new framework to address five years of capital needs at a little over half the cost.
“We have a problem that’s not going to go away,” superintendent Jeff Moss told the board Tuesday night, noting Bluffton’s population boom as he outlined a $120 million proposal for essentially the same projects that were rejected by voters just four months earlier.
The framework features the $12.4 million Whale Branch performing arts center that remains a hot-button issue, along with a $39.5 million new Bluffton school projected for 2021 that likely would be built adjacent to May River High School.
Total price tag in new construction: $79 million. The rest would go toward such improvements as replacing aging roofs or upgrading HVAC systems.
Moss did add a caveat for the Whale Branch auditorium: If the referendum doesn’t pass muster at the polls, the board should go back and approve funding via the district’s “8 percent” borrowing capacity that doesn’t require voter approval.
That funding mechanism, already used to green-light a second gymnasium at Whale Branch, had been at the center of discussion at the board’s previous two meetings.
That might create a dilemma among voters in the Whale Branch precincts, some of whom have vowed to fight any referendum if the arts center isn’t already approved for 8 percent funding.
Most prominent among that group is the Rev. James Moore, the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church pastor who promised last month to “do everything in my power to cause the next referendum to fail. I’ll use every penny I’ve got — because it’s wrong (to wait), and you know it’s wrong.”
Moore reiterated Tuesday that the arts center should not be on the referendum.
“I beg you to make the right decision. Vote to build that performing arts center (via 8 percent funds),” he told the board near the end of a nearly four-hour session. “You can do it, and we expect you to do it. And we will be back.”
No vote was taken Tuesday, giving board members an opportunity to fully digest the capital plan and bond proposal. The board is expected to take it up again at its next meeting March 21, where items could be added or deleted — and the plan could go up for vote.
Should the board formalize a proposal at that meeting or its next scheduled one April 4, the referendum could go before voters in June — still just seven months after they turned down the larger package.
“What was mentioned to us many times during that last referendum campaign was that 10 years is way too long,” Moss said. “What you have is something that’s condensed down to the (first) five years we discussed in the previous campaign.”
Indeed, the proposal makes only two changes to the 2019-23 building schedule in the last referendum — removal of the second Whale Branch gym, plus roof repairs at Beaufort High School now targeted for the district’s $20 million set-aside for urgent upgrades.
Among other big-ticket items: Renovations and classroom expansion at Hilton Head Island High and Hilton Head Island Middle, as well as additional wings at both May River High and River Ridge Academy.
The district’s millage rate would also face an uptick from 31.7 mils to 35.5 before falling again in 2023.
Prominent items now on hold from the back half of the 10-year plan are $50.1 million for another new school, $15.6 million for unspecified middle school expansion and $7 million for a possible land purchase.
“I’m just wary about all the construction,” said board member JoAnn Orischak. “There is so much there. River Ridge was just built, and now to tack on all those classrooms. And the traffic on Hilton Head ... if you put additional classrooms on that campus, it is a recipe for disaster.”
Orischak also noted H.E. McCracken Middle School currently has “an entire wing” of empty classrooms.
“You’re exactly right. McCracken has some empty classrooms,” Moss told her. “But they’re not projected to have those empty classrooms two years from now.”
Orischak and newcomer Christina Gwozdz also voiced doubts about projected rates of growth on Hilton Head Island, which has an older population.
“If we put gobs of money into Hilton Head,” Gwozdz said, “that’s probably quite unwise.”
Board member Evva Anderson, a Bluffton real estate agent, had a differing view: “I’m selling homes on Hilton Head to young families — people with babies, people with young children.”