Moving past two failed referendum proposals in recent years, the new leader of the Beaufort County School District and the new school board are planning to give it another go in November.
At Tuesday night’s board meeting — the first since five new members were sworn into office — the board voted 10-0 to allow interim superintendent Herb Berg to start planning for a November referendum. Board member Will Smith abstained.
Although the vote does not guarantee a referendum will take place, it was the first time since the board’s April 2018 referendum failure that the board made any official motion regarding a plan to again ask voters for funding.
Berg told the board Tuesday that the most common characteristic of a successful referendum is unanimous support from the board — something that was lacking when the former board split in a 6-5 vote to hold a special election referendum in April 2018.
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“That sends a message to the public that the adults who manage this place think the referendum is necessary,” he said.
The two failed referendums have left the district without millions of dollars to renovate existing buildings across the district and build and expand schools in Bluffton to alleviate overcrowding.
For some of the 72 percent of voters who cast ballots against the 2018 measure, it came down to their lack of trust and confidence in the school board and former superintendent Jeff Moss, they said. Following the board’s handling of Moss’ ethics violations in 2016, the former board members had been deeply divided and were often questioned for their leadership, accountability and transparency.
The April 2018 referendum and the November 2018 election, in which only one of the four incumbents who ran for re-election kept his seat, has been seen as a mandate for change.
With five new faces on the school board and a new, permanent superintendent who will take the place of former superintendent Moss in July, board members are optimistic about public support this go-around.
“We all ran on platforms of restoring public trust, and I think one of the best ways to do it is to make sure they see we are spearheading this issue and we have the best intentions for our students at heart,” said newly elected board member Rachel Wisnesfki.
Board member John Dowling, who voted against holding the board’s April 2018 referendum, said he thinks that now “the time is right.”
“We can learn from our mistakes with the last couple of referendums. We can talk about good numbers,“ he said.
On Tuesday night, interim superintendent Berg presented the board with an outlined plan leading up to the referendum.
The proposed schedule includes nearly two months of public discussions at board meetings followed by the board approving the referendum question by the end of May, Berg said.
Earlier this month, the school district sent out an online survey asking community members for their input on its school facilities.
The district received nearly 3,500 responses, in which more than 96 percent of respondents said that increasing school security and improving academic facilities were among their top concerns.
Berg told the board Tuesday that he thought the results showed that the public “wants to be supportive of a referendum.”
But, modernizing school building security and equalizing facilities across the district will be vital in the success of the November referendum, he said.
“As you know, the 32 buildings across the district are not all equal and there are some glaring, glaring exceptions to equality here,” Berg said.
Among the possible projects that could be included in a November referendum, Berg mentioned major building improvements at Robert Smalls International Academy, Hilton Head Island High School and Hilton Head Island Middle School and renovations to athletic facilities at Beaufort High School and Battery Creek High School.
In order to alleviate overcrowding at Bluffton schools, the construction costs for additions at River Ridge Academy and May River High School are also expected to be among the projects proposed, according to Robert Oetting, the district’s chief operations officer.
The district also plans to put together a “citizens review committee” that will include community members from across the district who will offer regular feedback as the district puts together its plan for November, Berg said Tuesday night.
“If it’s presented right and it’s presented in a way that makes sense and the finances are right, I think the public here in the county is ready to support some kind of a referendum,” he said.