After failing to gain enough support to pass bond referendums in 2016 and 2018, the Beaufort County Board of Education and school district are again preparing to ask voters for hundreds of millions of dollars to build new schools, renovate existing ones and upgrade security — this time, with new faces leading the charge.
Most members of the board began their terms this past January; and the district’s new superintendent, Frank Rodriguez, will start July 1, just in time for the board’s August deadline to get the bond referendum on the November ballot.
Despite this change in leadership, however, the board still faces challenges as it considers how to craft a bond referendum that will appeal to voters, including:
- How to address the ongoing FBI investigation into former superintendent Jeff Moss’ connection to a controversial education consultants’ group as well as into the construction of two Bluffton schools built during Moss’ tenure.
- Which projects to include from a $629 million wish list generated by a committee of community members and district employees in April.
- How to get buy-in from the board members who worry their constituents are underrepresented on the projects lists proposed thus far.
- How to appeal to voters across the county, including a “pocket of resistance” on Hilton Head Island that pledged to fight the referendum in retaliation for a popular principal being put on paid administrative leave in January.
- When to put the referendum — which will likely ask taxpayers for the ability to borrow more than $300 million — on the ballot.
- And whether the board should pay for a public relations consultant to help sell the referendum to voters.
“When the last referendum failed, folks said ‘Well, we need a new board, we need a new superintendent,’” board member Earl Campbell, who was chairman during the 2018 bond referendum, said at the May 28 special meeting of the board. “You have a new board and we have a new superintendent. Some are still complaining. Some folks complaining are not going to vote for this no way, but I’m not going to let that stop me.”
Since Moss’ departure in July 2018 and the school board elections later in the year, the board and district have sought to rebuild community trust lost during the divisive tenures of the former superintendent and the previous board, which critics have said contributed significantly to the historic referendum loss in April 2018 when just 27.8 percent of those who voted were in support of the $76 million measure.
Meanwhile, that loss and the previous school bond referendum failure have left the district behind on repairs and construction, which, in part, would address overcrowding at South of the Broad schools.
May River High, River Ridge Academy and Pritchardville Elementary were at or above 97 percent capacity as of February, forcing those schools to contend with classrooms in trailers, increasing class sizes and teachers without permanent space.
This, along with issues of leaking roofs, broken air conditioning and dilapidated gyms, has raised the stakes for the next referendum.
“If it fails, the soul of our community will be broken,” community activist and parent Amanda Walrad of Bluffton said. “At this point it is a question about the values of our community.”
The FBI investigation
Looming over this referendum, as it did in April 2018, is an ongoing FBI investigation into the construction of May River High School and River Ridge Academy in Bluffton and Moss’ connection to the Education Research and Development Institute.
The public was alerted to the investigation in February 2018 after two employees at the district, and one former employee, were subpoenaed by the Attorney General’s Office for documents related to the schools’ construction and the procurement process for each.
The district was again subpoenaed in August 2018, two days after Moss left the district.
In the fourth subpoena, the district was asked to provide Moss’ personnel records, as well as information about the district’s connection to the controversial Education Research and Development Institute and more than 30 other companies.
Both May River and River Ridge were designed by Hite Associates, a North Carolina firm that had worked with Moss in North Carolina but had never designed for a South Carolina school district prior to these projects.
As of Friday, no other details have email emerged about the investigation nor have any criminal charges have been filed.
“I don’t know what the status is (of the investigation),” board member JoAnn Orischak said Thursday. “I don’t know what impact that would have on this referendum, because Moss was really the central character in this.”
Orischak, who voted against holding both the 2016 and 2018 referendums, said despite the investigation, she feels confident endorsing this referendum.
“(Voters) are a little gun-shy,” she said. “We’re going to have to make a strong argument to voters on this referendum.”
The projects list
In opening discussion about the referendum at the school board’s regular meeting on May 28, interim superintendent Herbert Berg cautioned the board about the challenges ahead.
“In a lot of districts, you have to do most things right. In this district, you’ve probably got to do most things perfect.”
The district’s last successful school bond referendum was in 2008, when county voters approved $162.7 million to fund, in part, the projects that would become Pritchardville Elementary and River Ridge Academy.
Since then, voters have rejected subsequent requests for money. There were two in 2016 — a bond referendum that would have approved $217 million for schools, and a penny sales tax that would’ve raised roughly $120 million — and one in 2018 for a $76 million bond.
In planning the 2019 referendum, Berg put together a group of nominees from board members and school improvement teams to form the Community Project Review Committee, a task force that toured 19 district schools and reported recommendations on referendum priorities to Berg.
“It was eye-opening, enlightening and shocking, from one tour to the next,” committee member Kimberly Isen said at the board’s public comment session on May 28. She cited a school with “40-plus active leaks” in its roof and another with one operating bathroom on the day of the committee’s tour. “We are in dire straits in Beaufort County.”
The committee ranked 13 priorities for the district, citing safety and security as its top concern and land purchases as its lowest. The committee projected that addressing all these needs would cost approximately $629 million over five years, and proposed alternative three- and four-year referendum plans.
The district went with a four-year plan, which will cost slightly more than half of the original $629 million.
The proposed referendum will consist of two parts, which together will cost upward of $300 million. The board plans to present the referendum to voters in phases: Voters will have to approve part one of the referendum, which totals $290.5 million of expenses, in order to see part two, which could cost between $42 million and $89.2 million.
Here’s what’s on part one of the referendum, with cost estimates:
- Safety and security improvements to every school in the district: $25.7 million
- Demolishing the current Robert Smalls International Academy, and constructing and equipping a replacement: $71 million
- Building additions at May River High School and River Ridge Academy: $26 million
- Updating technology infrastructure across the district: $55.3 million
- Renovations at Beaufort Elementary School: $24.2 million
- Renovations, construction and necessary demolition at Battery Creek High School and Hilton Head Island Middle School: $88.3 million
While part two is less solidified, here’s what’s currently proposed, with cost estimates:
- Construction and renovation for Career and Technology Education, or CATE, at Battery Creek High School, Bluffton High School, May River High School and Whale Branch Early College High School: $46 million
- CATE renovations at Beaufort High School and Hilton Head Island High School: $5.1 million
- Athletic improvements at Beaufort Middle School, Whale Branch Middle School, River Ridge Academy, Bluffton Middle School and H.E. McCracken Middle School: $7.6 million
- Athletic improvements at all district high schools: $22 million
- Playground improvements at early childhood centers, elementary schools, and PreK-8 schools across the district: $8.7 million
The board is considering dropping or reducing CATE funding in question two of the referendum, which could reduce the cost by $38 million or $51 million, depending on the option the board pursues.
Projects that don’t make the cut for the referendum may be included in future referendums, but will likely be shunted to 8 percent funding, a yearly process that allows the school district to borrow up to 8 percent of the county’s assessed value for building maintenance. This equates to about $20 million per year — an amount that is wildly outstripped by existing maintenance requests.
“Unfortunately, $20 million can’t solve $400 million worth of work,” district chief operations officer Robert Oetting said at the board’s May 28 meeting.
Other board members have concerns with the distribution of funding across the district. During discussion of the referendum’s timing, board member William Smith brought up concerns that his district, which encompasses St. Helena Island and part of Beaufort, was not equally represented in the referendum.
“Every district must have some skin in the game,” he said. “Moving forward, I think right now might not be the time for the referendum. I don’t think that this has been vetted to the best of our abilities.”
He referenced the gym at St. Helena Elementary School, saying that years of requests for repairs have gone unanswered, and that the school gym’s air conditioning is “pretty much broken.”
“When it comes to District 3 and the St. Helena and Lady’s Island area, they have always felt underrepresented,” Smith said.
But community activist Walrad believes that everyone is represented in the referendum as it stands.
Two of the points in question one — security and safety and technology upgrades — apply to every school in the district. She compared the needs at different schools to those of neighbors after a hurricane — one might have cracked drywall, while another’s foundation has washed away.
“I wouldn’t classify it as a want, because (the gym) is outdated compared to anyone else,” she said. “But is it more important than safety and security?”
The O’Nan factor
Orischak kicked off discussion of the referendum May 28 by suggesting that the vote be moved to November 2020, due to concerns from her constituents on Hilton Head Island.
“Hilton Head doesn’t really have anything on this November (ballot) that would draw them out other than the referendum,” Orischak said. “And frankly, there may be a pocket of resistance there.”
Orischak believes that this pocket of resistance is related to the district’s handling of former Hilton Head High School principal Amanda O’Nan, who resigned this month and settled for $35,000 with the district after an investigation into allegations that she had an affair with an on-duty Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputy on school grounds.
O’Nan, who was publicly reprimanded by the South Carolina Department of Education’s board in March, resigned from the district in May with a settlement that totaled $51,349.
“You’d think by 2020 it’d calm down,” Orischak said. “It’s still very much fresh in people’s minds.”
Board members John Dowling and Smith also favored a 2020 referendum at the May 28 meeting, with Smith citing leadership changes in the district.
“Getting a new superintendent, I think it is very dangerous to put a referendum on the table now,” Smith said Wednesday. “I do appreciate the work the referendum team has done. However, I feel there are too many questions out there.”
Orischak also pointed out that there is no general county election this November, compared to 2020’s presidential election, which would attract more potential voters.
Ultimately, the majority of the board advocated for going forward with the November 2019 date, citing momentum from the community members who toured 19 district schools, reporting referendum recommendations to Berg.
“If we are on the roll like (board member Richard) Geier says, it’s important that we move forward with this thing to improve the schools. We cannot afford to be late,” board member Mel Campbell said. “I’m a believer in the public doing the right thing.”
According to state law, the district has until Aug. 15 to submit a referendum question for the November ballot. But once the board moves forward with the referendum, they’ll have a new role — on the sidelines.
“At the risk of sounding like the proverbial wet blanket, I think it’s important to bring up a couple points,” Dowling said. “The new members of the board are going to realize very shortly that as soon as we take a vote on the referendum, we are out of the picture.”
South Carolina state law prohibits school board members from using government resources to promote or discourage a referendum.
Orischak said that while she will be allowed to educate voters on the facts of the referendum, she couldn’t do so using her district-distributed iPad.
“In the past, I’ve just explained to people how I voted and why I did,” she said.
In light of that restriction, board member Rachel Wisnefski encouraged the district to look for outside help, saying she understood concerns about the abbreviated timeline of a November referendum.
“However, there’s a remedy for that,” she said. “There’s an ability for us to look at using consultants, who do this all the time for bodies to help them get these things passed.”
Wisnefski referenced County Council’s use of a consultant to pass last year’s penny referendum on roads, a proposal to add a one cent sales tax in Beaufort County to fund $120 million in bridge ex.
The county spent $140,000 with Columbia public relations firm NP strategy, selected over Beaufort’s Williams Group PR, who put in a $55,000 offer.
Berg confirmed that the district is already looking into consultants to recommend to the board.