Whale Branch Early College High School will get its performing arts center sooner rather than later, as the Beaufort County school board on Tuesday approved funding the $12.4 million project under its “8 percent” borrowing capacity rather than include it on any upcoming bond referendum as recommended by Beaufort County Superintendent Jeff Moss.
Approval came by a 7-2 vote, after a sometimes-testy question period that, at one point, brought a motion to close discussion as board member JoAnn Orischak hammered away with questions of cost certainty.
“You tell the board we can do this with little to no long-term trauma to the district,” Orischak said. “But how can we know that when we don’t even have the architectural designs yet?”
Tuesday’s proposal included a cap “not to exceed” $12.48 million. Orischak and Joseph Dunkle voted against the proposal; board member Christina Gwozdz was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.
Applause broke out after the vote was announced, as some two dozen Whale Branch constituents again made the drive from the county’s northern sector to be in attendance at the Bluffton library.
“Thank you for having the courage to do the right thing,” said Xavier Pierce, a Whale Branch freshman who served as a voice for his fellow students. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to come around and shake everyone’s hand and give them a hug.”
The arts center will be built concurrently with a new gymnasium previously given the green light under “8 percent” funding, which does not require voter approval. Groundbreaking would take place in late fall, with completion in time for the 2019-20 school year.
“It’s a blessing,” said board member Earl Campbell, who has been the projects’ chief proponent. “We fought so long for the high school, and then we had to fight for this. It’s a reality now, and that’s what’s important.”
Whale Branch is the only high school in the district without its own performing arts center. Events are held in the school’s cafeteria, with large productions taken to Battery Creek’s auditorium.
Both the gym and arts center were left out of the school’s original 2010 construction, a byproduct of the 10-year battle that ran between approval of bonds to build the school and when it actually opened. Area residents have long sought to make their campus whole.
“Everything should have been complete,” said board member Bill Payne, a former principal at Whale Branch Middle School. “We were stonewalled for 10 years.”
While Orischak voiced her concerns about cost, citing a price tag for May River High School that went from $50 million to $70 million, Dunkle had reservations about how the arts center fit into the bigger picture.
“Should we make knee-jerk decisions to fund that out of our 8 percent money without having a clear picture of how we can address all our other needs in the district,” he said.
It’s a sentiment shared by David Striebinger, though he eventually voted with the majority.
“I think we need to make the Whale Branch auditorium a priority,” Striebinger said. “We also have to do the hard job, and the hard job is how to make it work in the best interest of taxpayers. You don’t borrow $17 million (for the gym and auditorium) without having some effect.”
The two projects are the final pieces in what Whale Branch advocates saw as an unfinished campus since the high school — approved by voters in 2000 — opened its doors in 2010.
For more than a month, discussion centered on building the arts center with “8 percent” funding, only to see the project included in an early draft of a $120 million bond proposal outlined earlier this month to finance a five-year building plan.
The sudden reversal ahead of Tuesday night’s meeting brought accusations of backroom dealing from Richard Bisi, co-founder of Citizens Advocating Responsible Education.
“The fix was in from the very beginning on this,” Bisi told the board at night’s end.
“Congratulations to the Whale Branch people. But we talk about process, and this vote tonight and this spectacle was all about political expediency to finance your referendum — to win the votes of the people who live in the Whale Branch community. It was nothing more and nothing less.”
With the Whale Branch projects now settled, the board can begin to focus on a building campaign and bond referendum with a little more certainty.
Additional construction will be needed to accommodate the population boom in Bluffton, where it took River Ridge Academy just two years to reach capacity. The proposal includes $39.5 million to build a new school, likely on land adjacent to May River High.