Beaufort County voters rejected school board's $76 million referendum. What went wrong?

Roadside signs for and against Saturday's school bond referendum as photographed on Wednesday, April 18, 2019 along S.C. 170 in Okatie.
Roadside signs for and against Saturday's school bond referendum as photographed on Wednesday, April 18, 2019 along S.C. 170 in Okatie.

For the second time in 18 months, voters have denied the Beaufort County School District millions of dollars to fund school construction projects, in what some see as a rebuke of the district, which is involved in an FBI investigation, and a rebuke of the school board, which has been mired in dysfunction in the aftermath of superintendent Jeff Moss’ 2015 ethics violations.

The scale of Saturday’s rejection of the $76 million bond referendum — 72 percent against and 28 percent in favor — is unprecedented for Beaufort County school referendums.

“Six of the 11 board members voted (to hold) the referendum and 70 percent of voters voted against it, so I think that shows the dramatic disconnect between the board and the citizens,” board secretary David Striebinger said Monday. “The only fact I know is that we’re out of touch with the voters. I think (the public) told us again the same thing, even stronger this time."

In November 2016, 55 percent of voters rejected the board's $217 million bond referendum. A second measure, a 1 percent educational sales tax to pay off the new debt, failed by 60 percent.

In the immediate aftermath of 2016, Moss and board members sympathetic to him did not attribute the losses to an issue of trust. They said the wording on the ballot was confusing, their referendums drowned out by other items on the ballot, the size of the request — the district's largest to date — too large and the 10-year sales tax increase would last for too long.

This time around, the board’s request, straight forward in its wording, was reduced to $76 million. They voted to hold the special election on a Saturday instead of during the November 2018 election, a decision that cost about $90,000 more, but would likely bring more parents to the polls than a weekday election.

The board also included three career and technical education buildings on its projects list, an effort to perhaps mobilize the local business community for potential workforce implications.

And the formation of a special interest group associated with the effort to get the referendum passed helped push back against a group that opposed it.

Few people heading into the polls Saturday said they were unaware of what the vote called for, meaning the district and board did a better job this time around of educating the public, but the measure still failed.

"I’m not saying trust in the board and superintendent wasn’t a factor, but it’s not the only factor," board member Mary Cordray said Monday.

Board chairman Earl Campbell also said trust may have played a role at the polls, but then said, "I think when you start getting personal with stuff like this, it’s not good, but that’s the way it turned out so we have to live with it."

Cordray, Campbell and other board members on the majority side offered an array of reasons for Saturday's defeat, including low voter turnout, misinformation, the FBI's request for construction records from the district and a projects list that focused on Bluffton's growth but failed to offer enough to other school clusters.

Campbell and board member Evva Anderson cited low voter turnout as the driving reason for the board's defeat. Reduced turnout was a point brought up by minority board members in December as a reason to delay the election until the following November, but other members at the time said the overcrowding issue needed to be urgently addressed.

Anderson also said the presence of a "group with more money and marketing funds" than parents contributed to the board's defeat. She declined to name the group.

Cordray also cited misinformation circulating about two schools, May River High and River Ridge Academy, being built over budget. Both schools' final price tags exceeded estimates district officials presented to the board.

Four of the six referendum projects benefited Bluffton, a point Cordray — who crafted the motion that included the projects list — said may have been a reason some voters on Hilton Head and in northern Beaufort County voted against.

Members of the board's minority noted the imbalance of projects last winter, but majority board members said then that the list represented absolute needs, and the need to address Bluffton's overcrowding was crucial.

Asked what went wrong in Saturday's referendum, board member Bill Payne said, "I’m not taking that approach. I’m taking a positive approach. We will overcome that and move forward for our students and teachers."

Moss did not return a call for comment Monday, instead sending a prepared statement through district spokesman Jim Foster: “This doesn’t alter the reality of the challenges the school district faces. We still need to find room for hundreds of additional students every year in Bluffton."

The board voted to install mobile classrooms at two Bluffton schools for next year, meaning redistricting is off the table for the 2018-19 school year. But Saturday's defeat may mean that Bluffton students in the coming years could experience larger class sizes, rezoning to different schools or learning in mobile classrooms.

Bluffton mother Tracy Calvo cast a “yes” ballot at Pritchardville Elementary School, where her two children attend, specifically to avoid more mobiles at the overcrowded school.

Beaufort County has historically supported school referendums. Between 1995 and 2008, voters approved four school district bond referendums for projects totaling $448 million.

Few other South Carolina school districts have endured such a historic loss. The most recent rejection of this magnitude was Aiken County School District’s 2010 referendum when 70 percent of voters voted against a $236 million proposal, according to the South Carolina School Boards Association.

Problems that impacted board defeat at the polls, according to interviews with voters Saturday, included the recent revelation of the district's involvement in an FBI investigation, the board's decision not to release the subpoenas relating to that investigation and the petty dysfunction plaguing the divided board in the years since the hiring of Moss’ wife to a newly created district office job in September 2015.

Asked if the community will move past its issues with their employee, Moss' supporters on the board said some in the community already have.

"Things happen and you forgive," Campbell said. "You’re not hurting the superintendent, you’re not hurting the board, you’re hurting students. I’ve always learned to forgive."

Added Payne, "My focus will be on children itself and not the past."

Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer