Beaufort County voters rejected the school board’s request Saturday for $76 million to build a new school, expand two schools and add career and technical education facilities to three high school campuses.
The bond question that would have allowed the board to borrow up to $76 million failed with 10,519 votes against and 4,038 votes in support out off a total of 14,557 votes cast, according to unofficial results Beaufort County Board of Elections director Marie Smalls shared with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. The official results will be confirmed Friday.
For voters casting ballots against the measure, Saturday’s request was a mandate for change. Since the board’s handling of superintendent Jeff Moss’ ethics violations, the board has been deeply divided, oftentimes dysfunctional and dogged with questions about their leadership, accountability, transparency and trustworthiness.
"I believe the community doesn't have an abundance of confidence in the board and the administration," board member Joseph Dunkle said Saturday evening. "When coupled with the way the referendum came to be, it was a recipe for failure. I believe the next step should be a third party come in and do an independent assessment of our current zoning and future needs."
Board chairman Earl Campbell was not immediately available late Saturday evening for comment.
Longtime Hilton Head resident Willie Moore, who voted no, said a restoration of community trust could change her vote.
“When they get a new school board and superintendent, I will be glad to reconsider,” she said.
“Ditto,” said Moore’s friend, Norma Henderson, also of Hilton Head.
Other voters set aside lingering issues of trust to support the board’s request.
“We don’t trust this superintendent,” said Hilton Head Plantation resident Sally McGarry, who cast a ballot supporting the referendum. “We don’t trust this board, but the referendum is circumscribed enough that it will be used for the purpose for which it is intended for.”
The results will disappoint many Bluffton parents, including mother Stephanie Smith who cast a “yes” ballot at Pritchardville Elementary School where one of her two children attend.
“I’ve been here since 2008 and seen the population grow,” Smith said, adding that she is aware of the board’s longstanding divide and cost overruns associated with previous construction projects. “But I think ultimately the schools need the funding.”
She said the career and technical education buildings would be a great opportunity for her sons when they get to high school.
Beaufort resident Paul Nyquist said a new school board would need to be installed before he would support another school referendum. An FBI investigation in which school district employees have been subpoenaed for records related to school construction was another reason he voted against the measure.
His wife, Sandy Nyquist, also questioned the timing of Saturday’s special election, which election director Smalls has said it will cost at least $100,000.
“(Taxpayers) could have saved a lot of money,” she said. “We could’ve waited until there’s a new board to see who we’d be trusting with this obligation.”
With the board’s second failed referendum in a span of two years, they will scramble for a new plan to address Bluffton’s growing student population. District officials project an additional 247 students for the 2018-19 school year.
Options the board may consider include:
- Rezoning: Re-drawing the attendance lines that dictate which neighborhoods attend which schools proved to be a vastly unpopular option when presented to parents in the fall. Many fear uprooting their children from their current school to a new one may interrupt academic progress and negatively impact their child’s social connections. Busing would be more expensive and result in longer routes.
- Adding more mobile classrooms: Temporary mobile classrooms have been ordered for two of Bluffton’s most crowded schools, River Ridge and Pritchardville Elementary, though district projections show both schools to be above 100 percent capacity even with the mobile additions.The district says an optimal school capacity is 85 percent.
- Use “8 percent” funds: This funding option doesn’t require voter approval for construction, but district officials have historically preferred to use this funding source for school maintenance, such as roof replacements and HVAC upgrades.
- Hold another referendum
In the board’s 2016 referendum, which was held on the same day of the presidential election, more than 70,000 Beaufort County residents cast ballots.
Saturday’s 11 percent voter turnout was more in line with the 2006 and 2008 school referendums. Both were held on Saturdays and drew about 10,000 voters.
The lower turnout was evident at a Bluffton gas station where Bob Gion Friddo pumped fuel Saturday morning.
Asked if he planned to vote in the referendum, Friddo said he didn’t know there was one.