Picking themselves up a little over a year after voters rejected their $217 million bond referendum in November 2016, the Beaufort County Board of Education will hold another county-wide bond referendum this spring to address Bluffton’s booming student enrollment and to alleviate overcrowding.
The decision to hold a special election on Saturday, April 21, split the board, with the majority vote — which typically aligns itself with schools superintendent Jeff Moss — favoring immediate action to begin construction and the minority bloc questioning the higher cost and fairness of calling for a vote outside the general election cycle.
While the board has previously discussed Moss’ recommendation for a $129 million referendum, the minority bloc also took issue with how quickly this new motion was made, given the $76 million figure and that its accompanying projects list hadn’t been introduced before Tuesday night’s meeting.
In a 6-5 vote, the board approved asking voters for no more than $76 million in bonds to fund a new Bluffton school, expansions to River Ridge Academy and May River High School and the construction of Career and Technical Education (CATE) buildings at Bluffton High, Beaufort High and Hilton Head Island High schools.
Board members David Striebinger, Joseph Dunkle, Christina Gwozdz, JoAnn Orischak and John Dowling voted against the motion and, earlier Tuesday night, voted to tack the school referendum onto the November 2018 election, a motion that failed 5-6, with members again voting according to their minority-majority alliances.
The board’s split on the issue of when to hold the referendum is tied to an ongoing battle on the reason 55 percent of voters rejected the 2016 referendum. Some attribute the loss to a general misunderstanding on ballot wording, while critics point to a lack of trust in the board, stemming from its perceived lack of response to Moss’ 2015 ethics violations.
On Wednesday, Dunkle and Dowling called the special election “almost a form of voter suppression” because far fewer voters typically cast ballots in special elections.
“Everyone I know thinks you vote on Tuesdays,” Dunkle said. “You see how much pushback we get for having schools on a Saturday and now we want to have an election on Saturday?”
Statistics show voter turnout will likely be reduced in the spring. According to the South Carolina School Boards Association, roughly 70,000 voters cast a ballot in the school bond referendum in the November 2016 election. In the 2008 special election held on a Saturday in April for a school bond referendum, about 10,000 voters showed up at the polls.
Moss pointed out that 2016 was a presidential election and perhaps not the best comparison.
“We know a lot more people show up at November elections,” Striebinger said in response. “If we want more voters, we hold it in November.”
But the board majority argued holding a special election could increase the likelihood of a referendum passing. With only one item on the ballot and many parents already voicing their support for a referendum, the board could avoid a repeat of their 2016 failure.
“(Holding) a special election puts the attention strictly on the school district,” board member Geri Kinton said. “We will get people who really care about the schools voting.”
Waiting on the issue until November was seen by Kinton and others as stalling on something that demands swift action.
“We have delayed this action, in my mind, since last year,” board member Mary Cordray said. “November is another year away. That puts school (construction) another year behind, putting students in crowded situations.”
School growth is an almost entirely Bluffton issue with district projections showing few signs of enrollment slowing down. As a short-term fix for next school year, the board voted 10-1, with Dunkle opposing, to spend no more than $1.2 million on mobile classrooms for Pritchardville Elementary and River Ridge — the two schools operating at more than 100 percent building capacity, according to 45-day enrollment figures.
The cost of a special election
Cost was another concern for minority members in considering a special election.
Dowling cited a $90,000 savings if the referendum were folded into the November 2018 election.
Moss and board chairman Earl Campbell said Tuesday they had never heard the $100,000 figure before.
A Beaufort County Board of Voter Registration and Elections official confirmed Wednesday that a $100,000 estimate for a spring special election is accurate. Adding the referendum to a November ballot is a more difficult estimate to make, the official said, but she pointed to the board’s $13,500 cost of two school board questions on the ballot in 2016 and said a single question would likely be less than that.
Board member Evva Anderson acknowledged Wednesday that $90,000 in savings is “not a drop in the bucket,” but said the board has been seeking overcrowding solutions for so long that they have “let it come to a point where it’s crucial.”
Cost estimates, CATE questions
Details missing from the $76 million referendum list — an amount that had not been introduced prior to Tuesday’s meeting — were another reason to hold off, minority members said.
Dowling pressed Moss on the $44 million estimate to build a new school, which district officials have said is based on River Ridge Academy’s “footprint.”
District data presented to the board Oct. 28 shows River Ridge cost roughly $30 million.
Moss attributed the $14 million increase in the construction estimate to a five percent inflation rate over eight years.
While district officials estimate constructing a new school to take about two years, expansions to May River and River Ridge would be prioritized before tackling the new school, district spokesman Jim Foster further explained in an email Wednesday.
Orischak questioned the list’s inclusion of CATE buildings, asking which programs will be offered at each school and whether another building would even fit on Hilton Head’s campus.
Kinton instructed her to look at the very building where Tuesday’s meeting was held, May River High, for a conceptual idea. May River is one of two district high schools with a CATE program already in place.
Missing from both the 2016 list and Moss’ $129 million recommendation presented Oct. 28 are key maintenance items — HVAC upgrades and roof replacements, for example — that will need to be addressed at some point soon, district officials have previously said.
Anderson asked Moss if the “8 percent” funding, which does not require voter approval, would be enough to cover these items.
“You make decisions on what you want to spend on annually. ... But yes, the 8 percent (fund) could take care of it,” Moss said in reference to the roughly $37 million in maintenance items included in his earlier recommendation to the board.
Reflecting back on his remaining questions, Dowling said Wednesday, “Between now and November we could have achieved a lot more clarity in what we were asking voters to fork over this money for.”
Estimated breakdown of each project
- New school in Bluffton: $44,261,887
- May River High School expansion (16 classrooms): $11,678,823
- River Ridge Academy expansion (12 classrooms): $4,859,009
- Bluffton High School CATE building: $4,939,131
- Beaufort High School CATE building: $4,939,131
- Hilton Head Island High School CATE building: $4,939,131