Beaufort Co. school board approves $345 million bond referendum for November

What’s included in proposed $300M+ bond referendum for Beaufort County Schools

A new bond referendum worth more than $300 million was proposed for the Beaufort County School District in May. Here's what it includes.
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A new bond referendum worth more than $300 million was proposed for the Beaufort County School District in May. Here's what it includes.

Voters, get ready — your Nov. 5 ballots will include a $345 million school bond referendum.

Beaufort County School District’s Board of Education voted 9-2 last night in favor of the referendum date and terms, with board members Will Smith and JoAnn Orischak opposing.

The referendum will be on the ballot in two parts. Voters must pass part one, a $291 million package, in order for part two to pass. Part one of the referendum includes the following, 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

Part two is a $54 million package, which includes the following (with cost estimates):

  • Construction and renovation for Career and Technology Education, or CATE, at Battery Creek High School and May River High School: $12 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 $344 million is a decrease from the nearly $380 million originally proposed for the referendum. The reduction comes from a smaller ask for career and technology education funding, which district CATE director Karen Gilbert advocated for. Instead of equipping new CATE facilities across the district, the referendum will simply fund expansions at Battery Creek and May River High Schools.

Orischak said her no vote on the terms of the referendum was due to her preference for no career and technology education funding and a reduced overall cost. Earlier, she voted to support the Nov. 5 date, saying that she wanted to make it clear she endorsed the referendum, if not all of the details.

Smith said his no vote was in part due to CATE funding — “we’re putting the cart before the horse” in terms of needing corporate sponsors for career programs, he said — and in part due to lingering concerns over his district’s representation in the referendum. He mentioned St. Helena Elementary School’s gym renovations and a promise of SMART boards as needs that have gone unmet for a long time.

Several community members came up to speak in favor of the referendum before the board’s discussion, many of them members of the community project review committee that advised interim superintendent Herb Berg on referendum priorities. Dusty Lanning, one of the committee members, directly addressed Smith’s comments at the board’s May 28 meeting that every district needed “skin in the game” for the referendum to pass.

“Please don’t crush this because one particular item you wanted in wasn’t there,” Lanning said. “We really need this on the ballot now, because the kids have waited long enough.”

Fellow committee member Julia Lanzone said that she was concerned about student safety due to overcrowding and the issues she saw touring schools.

“The very idea that any one of you as a sitting board member actively is sitting there saying that you’re not going to support a referendum is ludicrous. This list will only continue to grow,” Lanzone said.

“The board of education has put my children at risk with their choices over the past couple of years. So many times in 2016, my 5-year-old sat in a class with 36 children. Do you know at that age most states regulate 20 children? In 2017-18, my daughter sat on the floor in a hallway.”

Smith’s motion to add $1.5 million for St. Helena Elementary gym renovations to the referendum failed 1-10. The board went on to express support for prioritizing the gym for 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.

Smith was the lone “no” vote on holding the referendum in November earlier Tuesday evening, citing concerns of transparency around school consolidation.

“It sounds like we’re building schools big enough so that — we won’t say it out loud because it may tick people off — but what we will do is build them big enough so that when we’re ready to make a decision (on consolidation), we have the room there,” he said.

This echoed other board members’ questions about the size of the new Robert Smalls International Academy, which is the largest single expense on the referendum.

“The conversation has been going on for a very long time,” Smith said. “But the elephant is out of the room and the cat came out of the bag today.”

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.