‘A catastrophe’: New Beaufort Co. school board revokes funding for school addition

An artist’s rendering of River Ridge Academy before it was constructed.
An artist’s rendering of River Ridge Academy before it was constructed. Beaufort County School District

Just two weeks after six Beaufort County school board members took the oath of office, the board reversed a decision made by their predecessors to use $6.3 million to expand an overcrowded Bluffton school linked to an ongoing FBI investigation into building costs.

At the board’s Dec. 11 meeting — the last of the term for six of 11 former board members — the board voted 6-5 to design and build a 16-classroom addition onto River Ridge Academy using about a fourth of the district’s “8 percent” borrowing capacity — money the district is allowed to borrow for school capital projects without voter approval.

Board member David Striebinger, who called the move a “last hurray for the lame ducks,” voted in support of the motion only so that he could call for a re-vote once the new board members were seated in January, he said at the time.

Striebinger fulfilled his promise Tuesday night by asking the board to reconsider the Dec. 11 decision and then making a new motion to only fund the architectural designs for the school addition using $480,000 of the “8 percent” funds.

That motion, which does not include money for the construction of the school addition, passed 10-1, with board member Earl Campbell voting against it.

Campbell was the only previously seated board member, aside from Striebinger, who voted in support of the Dec. 11 decision. He said Tuesday that he voted against the reversal of that decision because “we already voted to do it and we just disappointed the parents.”

The board left in place its earlier decision to also use $1.2 million of the “8 percent” money to fund the architectural designs for an addition to May River High School.

The earliest the district could break ground on the school additions would be in November, according to Robert Oetting, the district’s chief operations officer.

On Tuesday night, the board approved interim superintendent Herb Berg’s timeline for a November 2019 referendum, which would include the construction costs for both additions at River Ridge Academy and May River High School.

If voters approve the November referendum, the construction of both additions would not face any delay and could still be finished for the start of the 2020-21 school year, according to Oetting.

Rebecca Madeiros, a mother of three students at River Ridge Academy, called the board’s decision Tuesday night “a catastrophe.”

“If they can take something that an old board did and reverse it that quickly in their first session, then that’s a precedence they’re setting for their entire term in office,” Madeiros said. “It doesn’t instill any trust for me in them.”

Former school board member Geri Kinton, who was among the six members that voted to use “8 percent funds” on the River Ridge construction, spoke out against the board’s reversal during a public comment session Tuesday night.

“If you really want to restore the trust and rebuild the trust of those parents who you just cut from the knees, I recommend that in addition to the action you’ve taken tonight, that you make a motion to guarantee that if the referendum doesn’t come to fruition and or pass, that you use 8 percent funds to build River Ridge additions,” Kinton said.

The school district was subpoenaed in an ongoing FBI investigation last year for documents relating to the construction of River Ridge Academy and May River High School, which were both built during former superintendent Jeff Moss’ tenure.

The construction of both schools have been criticized for costing millions of dollars more than initial estimates from Moss. And four years after their completion, both schools are at or above 97 percent capacity.

The planned additions to River Ridge Academy and May River High School were included in both the district’s 2016 and 2018 referendums that voters rejected.

The district’s “8 percent” borrowing capacity is typically reserved for routine maintenance needs, such as HVAC upgrades and roof replacement. At a Nov. 2018 work session, the district’s bond attorney, Frannie Heizer, advised the board that referendum money should be used to pay for new construction and longer-term projects.

Prior to reversing the decision, board members voiced their support for expanding the schools but said that a voter-approved referendum funds — not “8 percent” funds — should pay for it.

Board chairman Christina Gwozdz said the board’s decision “was not taken lightly.”

“We are committed to this group of students and parents. ... and (as Oetting confirmed at Tuesday night’s meeting) this will not change the construction timeline,” Gwozdz said.

Maggie Angst covers education for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. In 2017, Maggie was named the Media Person of the Year by the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri and grew up in the Chicago area.