Beaufort Co. votes on school referendum in less than a month. What you need to know

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that question two of the referendum includes $3.8 million to design renovations at Hilton Head Island High School.

In less than a month, Beaufort County voters will decide whether to approve a school bond referendum. If it passes, it will be the first time since 2008.

Since then, there have been two unsuccessful school bond referendums, one in 2016 and one in 2018 — but with new district leadership and a new board of education, confidence is mounting that the losing streak will be broken this November.

New superintendent Frank Rodriguez began an eight-night tour of district schools Wednesday to hold town halls around the referendum.

Approximately 15 parents and students showed up to the first town hall, held at River Ridge Academy.

In 2018-19, the school had 1,236 students, 5 percent over its 1,173-student capacity. The K-8 school was slated for expansion in the district’s 2016 and 2018 school bond referendums, both of which failed. The parents present were largely supportive of the referendum.

The remaining seven town hall dates are:

  • Oct. 14, 6 p.m., Beaufort High

  • Oct. 16, 6 p.m., Battery Creek High

  • Oct. 21, 6 p.m., Spanish-language town hall, Bluffton Middle

  • Oct. 22, 6 p.m., Bluffton High

  • Oct. 23, 6 p.m., Hilton Head Island High

  • Oct. 28, 6 p.m., Whale Branch Early College High

  • Oct. 29, 6 p.m., St. Helena Elementary

Wondering what you should ask at them? Here’s a primer on the history of school bond referendums, what the funding will go to and what to consider at the ballot box.

What’s on the referendum?

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

  • Designing renovations for Hilton Head Island High School: $3.8 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

If it passes

The school district will borrow up to $344.6 million in 25-year bonds to begin paying for the projects.

“The additions at River Ridge Academy and May River High School are already being designed, and construction would begin as soon as the projects could be bid if voters approve the November 5 referendum,” the district wrote in its Referendum FAQ. “Other projects included in the referendum would be phased in over the next four years.”

If it fails

The projects in the referendum will either be abandoned or shunted to 8 percent funding. Each year, the district can borrow up to 8 percent of its total total assessed property value to fund capital projects — for example, construction, but not human needs like teacher pay increases — without a referendum.

The district borrows $20 million a year in 8 percent funds, a number that district chief operations officer Robert Oetting said was set to avoid going too far in debt.

“Based on the $628 million, it would take us over 30 years to accomplish everything that’s in the referendum,” Oetting said of using 8 percent funds Wednesday.

Wait, $628 million?

It’s twice the number that voters will see on the ballot, but that’s the full cost of needs that a community planning committee determined with district officials earlier this year.

In planning the 2019 referendum, interim superintendent Herb 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 $628 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 $628 million.

How much it will cost you

According to a tax calculator on the Beaufort County School District’s website, a primary resident with a home valued at $200,000 would pay an additional $56 in taxes annually.

Whether that amount would change over the 25-year life of the bonds depends on a number of factors, including future property tax reassessments, other bonds being retired and new industry moving into the county.

A secondary homeowner with a property of the same value would pay an additional $84 annually in taxes.

What’s changed since 2018

Both the 2016 and 2018 referendum failures were largely motivated by a dysfunctional school board and two separate scandals surrounding then-superintendent Jeff Moss: first, an investigation by the S.C. Board of Ethics into the hiring of his wife to a high-paying school district position, for which he was found “unintentionally guilty;” then an FBI investigation into the construction of May River High School and River Ridge Academy, as well as Moss’ connection to the controversial Education Research and Development Institute.

Those losses 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.

Since Moss’ departure, the district has been run by Berg for the 2018-19 school year and now Rodriguez, who began in July after a stint as a regional superintendent over 58,000 students in Palm Beach County, Fla.

Rodriguez launched a listening and learning tour in August that sought parent input on the strengths and weaknesses of the district’s 30 schools.

“I’m losing my voice because I’ve done more tours than the Rolling Stones,” Rodriguez said at his Sept. 26 Beaufort High stop, where parents expressed concerns over school safety and teacher retention, among other issues.

Now, two weeks after that tour finished, he’s back on the road for the referendum.

“The needs don’t go away if the referendum doesn’t pass,” he said Wednesday. “That’s the reality.”

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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.