Beaufort News

Beaufort County school board adds $16 million to sales-tax wish list

The Beaufort County school board agreed Tuesday to seek $16 million to build a new auditorium and gym, adding to its hefty list of school projects it plans to build over the next decade.

The school district hopes to complete those new additions and three dozen other projects using revenue from a 1 percent increase to the countywide sales tax. A proposal to do so will go before voters in November.

While the board initially planned to carry out $40 million in school additions, the list finalized at a special meeting Tuesday night totaled about $60 million in work, largely due to the two new items: a $12.5 million auditorium at Whale Branch Early College High School in Seabrook and a $3.5 million gym at Riverview Charter School in Beaufort.

Also, budgets for the other 10 additions also increased by about $5 million. Costs for upgrades to Hilton Head Island High School and the new May River High School opening in the fall each grew by about $1.2 million each. All but one of the additions are projected to be started by 2021.

The late changes upset Richard Bisi, co-founder of local schools interest group Citizens Advocating Responsible Education who opposes the tax increase.

He said the projects seemed to originate from board members rather than from school officials, making them seem like last minute “pet projects.”

Most other high schools were already included on the list. Only Battery Creek High will not see one, according to the final referendum question. Still, the newly-proposed, 25,000-square-foot auditorium at Whale Branch Early College High is also the most expensive upgrade on the list.

Board member Earl Campbell, who represents the Whale Branch cluster, has led the recent push to get the high school a new auditorium, primarily discussing it with Superintendent Jeff Moss and chief operational services officer Phyllis White, he said Wednesday.

However, he said there was nothing last minute about the project. It’s been a plan since the school was built and was even included in a past educational sales tax referendum, though the addition was never built.

“It was always in the works. We just didn’t have the money,” Campbell said. “It’s not something that just came up.”

Bisi said that was not the point. Long-wished-for or not, the Whale Branch auditorium was not on the school board’s referendum question until Tuesday night. Neither was the charter school gym.

“That’s all smoke and mirrors,” he said. “That’s all double-talk, as far as I’m concerned. It was not on the list put forth by the administration.”

Both projects were included in the original designs for the schools and were vetted by the board, district spokesman Jim Foster said.

The auditorium in particular has been a longstanding concern in the Whale Branch community, as it is the only district high school without an auditorium, he said.

In total, the school board’s list of capital projects — which includes two new schools and roof and HVAC replacements — would cost about $217 million over the next 10 years. That’s about $2.8 million less than it reported needing in February, when the board released a preliminary plan for the educational sales tax.

The district will also delay the construction of new schools in the Bluffton area, according to the final projects list. One $40 million school is now planned for 2021, and a second $50 million building would go up in 2026, compared to its initial plan of building two new Bluffton schools around 2020. The district also expects to give one of the schools a $15 million addition around 2025.

All of the funding would come from the new sales tax, which could generate about $282 million over the next 10 years and also would decrease property owners’ taxes on the district’s debt service by one-third through 2027, according to the district.

Beaufort County schools would also share 10 percent of the tax revenue with local institutions of higher education, sending about $14 million apiece to the Technical College of the Lowcountry and the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

The board will hold several public meetings before the November election to provide information about the projects and projected enrollment growth. The school district has also prepared responses to frequently asked questions about the referendum, available on its website.

Two community groups, Citizens Advocating Responsible Education and Voters Against Sales Tax, have already announced their opposition to the referendum question, citing lack of trust in the district and its projections, and may hold public meetings of their own.

Breaking down the educational sales tax

Grand total: $217,022,435

Building additions: $60,324,959

  • Beaufort High wrestling room
  • Bluffton High wrestling and weight rooms
  • Hilton Head Island High building addition and renovation
  • Hilton Head Island Middle building addition and parking addition
  • May River High new wing
  • River Ridge Academy new addition, 12 classrooms, concessions building, parking and driveway
  • Riverview Charter gym addition and building renovations
  • Robert Smalls International Academy concessions, storage building
  • Whale Branch Early College High gym, auditorium additions

HVAC upgrades: $17,381,920

  • Battery Creek High
  • Beaufort Middle
  • Bluffton Elementary
  • Bluffton High
  • Coosa Elementary
  • H.E. McCracken Middle
  • Hilton Head Island High
  • Hilton Head Island Middle
  • Lady's Island Middle
  • Port Royal Elementary
  • Okatie Elementary
  • Whale Branch Elementary
  • Maintenance building
  • District office

New construction and land purchases: $112,379,209

  • Bluffton-area land purchase for a future school site
  • Bluffton-area new construction (new school to meet growing demand)
  • Bluffton-area new construction (new school to meet growing demand)

Roof replacements: $27,022,435

  • Beaufort High
  • Bluffton Elementary
  • H.E. McCracken Middle
  • Hilton Head Island High
  • Hilton Head Island Elementary IB
  • Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts
  • Hilton Head Island Middle
  • Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary
  • Lady’s Island Middle
  • Islands Academy
  • Robert Smalls International Academy
  • Whale Branch Middle
  • Maintenance building
  • District office
  • Bluffton Elementary (waterproofing exterior walls)

Rebecca Lurye: 843-706-8155, @IPBG_Rebecca