Overcrowding at River Ridge Academy, did this principal see it coming?
Correction: This story was updated to correct the location of a CATE building proposal.
Beaufort County voters go to the polls Saturday to decide whether the Beaufort County School District can borrow $76 million to help relieve student overcrowding in Bluffton by building a new school — likely for elementary and middle school students — as well as expanding two existing schools. The proposal would also expand career and technical education course offerings at three high schools.
Here's what you need to know before heading to the polls:
The ballot questions reads:
Shall the Board of Education of the School District of Beaufort County, South Carolina (the “School District”) be empowered to issue, at one time or from time to time, general obligation bonds of the School District in a total principal amount not to exceed $76,000,000, the proceeds of which shall be used to finance the costs (including architectural, engineering, legal and related fees) of acquiring, constructing, improving, equipping and expanding school facilities within the School District, as follows:
Classroom Additions to Existing Facilities
- River Ridge Academy
- May River High School
Constructing and Equipping of New Facilities
- A new school in Bluffton
- New career and technical education building at Beaufort High School
- New career and technical education building at Bluffton High School
- New career and technical education building at Hilton Head Island High School
How much will each project cost?
The official ballot language does not specify. Estimates from district officials put the projects at:
- New school in Bluffton: $44.3 million; While the school board has not voted on grade configuration or capacity size of the new school, the district plans to recommend a PreK-8 configuration with a 1,000-student capacity with room for a 400-student expansion in the future, according to district spokesman Jim Foster. The school would sit adjacent to May River High on land that has already been paid for with proceeds approved in a 2008 referendum. The school will relieve the overcrowding at elementary schools in Bluffton's New Riverside area. Both Pritchardville Elementary and River Ridge will have mobile classrooms next school year to offset overcapacity within the buildings.
- May River High expansion: $11.7 million; A 20-classroom addition would increase the building capacity from 1,400 to 1,800 students.
- River Ridge Academy expansion: $5 million; A 16-classroom addition would bump building capacity from 1,013 to 1,400 students.
- CATE buildings at Beaufort High School, Bluffton High School and Hilton Head Island High School; Each school would get a $5 million, four-classroom facility where students would take classes in different career "pathways" such as automotive technology and culinary.
Why vote yes?
Bond proponents say:
- The district's total student enrollment has increased by about 1,400 students in the last five years. While all other geographic clusters project a decline in student enrollment, the Bluffton cluster is projected to grow about 1,500 students by the 2022-23 school year.
- The $76 million must be used solely for the listed projects — all of which were approved by the Beaufort County school board. The projects are required to be accounted for separately from other building funds.
- Without voter approval of Saturday's proposal, the board faces the unpopular decision of re-drawing student attendance zones, which would send some students to different schools, or investing millions of dollars in temporary mobile classrooms.
Bluffton resident Carolyn Christy, a former teacher in Ohio, said she plans to vote yes.
"I can certainly see the need for it," she said. "I don't support students in mobile classrooms."
Why vote no?
Bond opponents say:
- The plan requires trust in district leaders, which some say has been in short supply for several years.
- The list includes just one project north of the Broad River and one on Hilton Head. The remaining $66 million is earmarked for projects in Bluffton, where the growth is occurring.
- The three Career and Technical Education buildings are considered by some to be wants rather than needs while maintenance items, such as roof replacements and HVAC upgrades, have been left off the proposal.
Bluffton resident Lee Smith said he plans to vote no on Saturday's ballot.
"The board can't get along," he said. "They act like children, and why should we give them our money?"
What is the cost to me?
According to a tax calculator on the Beaufort County School District’s website, a primary resident with a home valued at $200,000 would pay an additional $18.32 in taxes annually. Whether that amount would change over the 25-year life of the bonds depends on a number of factors, including future property tax reassessments, other bonds being retired and new industry moving into the county. A secondary homeowner with a property of the same value would pay an additional $27.48 in taxes.
After an inquiry from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, the district added an additional tax calculator to show the cost of a successful referendum on vehicles, boats and business property. For example, a car assessed at $30,000 would pay an additional $7.21 in taxes.
If the proposal passes
The school district will borrow up to $76 million in 25-year bonds to begin paying for the projects. The two school expansions will be tackled first, district officials said.
If the questions fails
Homeowners will see no tax increase. The school board will consider other proposals to address school growth such as redistricting, mobile classrooms and larger class sizes. The board could also use its “8 percent” funds, which don’t require voter approval, for construction.
The board decided in December to add mobile classrooms as a short-term solution for River Ridge Academy and Pritchardville Elementary. Even with the mobiles, district officials' projections for the overcrowded schools are bleak. River Ridge's capacity in the 2018-19 school year will hover around 110 percent and Pritchardville's will be at 102 percent capacity. The district says an optimal school capacity is 85 percent.
How crowded are the schools?
In the 2017-18 school year, district-wide enrollment grew by 235 students — just three students off of chief financial officer Tonya Crosby's projection, she said in February. But the Bluffton cluster actually grew by about 400 students. This growth was offset by an enrollment decline of about 200 students in other clusters throughout the county.
The overcrowding is concentrated in the New Riverside area of Bluffton, which is currently served by three schools: Pritchardville Elementary, River Ridge Academy and May River High.
Isn’t Hilton Head overcrowded?
While a failed 2016 referendum included funding to add on to both Hilton Head Middle and Hilton Head High, enrollment projections don't show a major uptick in students at the island's schools.
In the 2012-13 school year, 4,278 students attended Hilton Head schools. That number peaked in the 2015-16 school year to almost 4,500, but has declined in the two years since. On the 45th day of the 2017-18 school year, 4,368 attended Hilton Head schools.
What about schools north of the Broad?
There's a big difference, at least in dollars, between what voters north and south of the Broad River will get if they approve the proposal Saturday. That's primarily because capacity in northern county schools is on the decline.
Four schools — Whale Branch Middle, Battery Creek High, Beaufort Elementary and St. Helena Elementary — are hovering near 50 percent capacity, but proposals to send students in the southern part of the county to schools with capacity north of the Broad River proved vastly unpopular with parents. Many fear uprooting their children to a new school environment will disrupt academic progress and social connections formed at their current schools. Busing would be more expensive and result in longer routes.
CATE stands for Career and Technical Education, a program offering students in seventh through 12th grades courses in high-skill, high-wage emerging careers. The state-approved courses fall into one of 16 career clusters. Some of the district's courses offer work-based learning opportunities or industry credentials.
A sampling of CATE courses offered at the public high schools include: Introduction to Aviation and Aerospace Engineering, Culinary, Welding, Public Safety and Security, Media Technology, Exploring Computer Science and Sports Medicine.
How many board members voted to hold the referendum and what is each member’s stance on it?
In a 6-5 vote in December, the board voted to hold the referendum. A quick poll by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette earlier this month found five board members planning to vote "yes" in the referendum and five others planning to vote "no." Those voting yes listed a reduction in overcrowding of Bluffton schools as the top reason to support their request. And those voting no said the election should have been held during November's general election, which would have saved about $90,000 and given the board more time to craft its projects list.
District 1 (Sheldon, Dale, Lobeco and Burton): Earl Campbell — Yes
District 2 (Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Beaufort, Lady's Island and Fripp Island): David Striebinger — No
District 3 (Beaufort, Lady's Island, St. Helena Island and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island): Cynthia Gregory-Smalls — Did not return three calls and two emails
District 4 (Beaufort, Port Royal, Shell Point and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island): Joseph Dunkle — No
District 5 (Okatie, Burton and Shell Point): Geri Kinton — Yes
District 6 (Sun City Hilton Head and Okatie): John Dowling — No
District 7 (Buckwalter in Bluffton): Evva Anderson — Yes
District 8 (Hilton Head and Bluffton): Mary Cordray — Yes
District 9 (Bluffton, Pritchardville and Daufuskie Island): Christina Gwozdz — No
District 10 (Hilton Head): Bill Payne — Yes
District 11 (Hilton Head): JoAnn Orischak — No
How much will holding the special election cost?
The Saturday election will cost at least $100,000, but an exact cost is still unknown and will depend on how many workers are needed and how many precincts will be open. Beaufort County Board of Elections director Marie Smalls said tacking the referendum onto the 2018 general election in November would cost roughly $13,000.
Historically, however, the Beaufort County school board has held referendums on Saturdays. In 2000, 2006 and 2008, the board’s referendums fell on Saturdays.
In general, holding a special election rather than on November's general election day tends to lower turnout and might help increase the odds of it passing, said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University. And Saturday elections, as opposed to weekday ones, means more working parents are able to cast ballots.
How have past referendums fared?
Beaufort County voters have generally supported referendums, but in 2016, they shot down three measures at the polls — a school district bond proposal and two sales-tax increases proposed by both the county and school district.
- 2016: Denied, a $217 million school district bond referendum
- 2016: Denied, a 10-year, 1 percent school district educational-sales tax referendum
- 2016: Denied, a $120 million Beaufort County sales-tax proposal
- 2008: Approved, a $162.7 million school district bond referendum
- 2006: Approved, a $43.7 million school district bond referendum
- 2006: Approved, a $152 million, 1 percent special transportation sales tax
- 2006: Approved, a $152 million Beaufort County bond referendum
- 2004: Denied, a $122 million, 1 percent capital project sales tax
- 2002: Denied, a 63.8 million, 1 percent special transportation sales tax
- 2000: Approved, a $120 million school district bond referendum
- 1998: Approved, a $40 million special purpose 1 percent sales tax for a transportation project
- 1997: Denied, a $102 million special purpose 1 percent sales tax for a transportation project
- 1995: Approved, a $122 million school district bond referendum
- 1994: Denied, a $80.9 million school district bond referendum