Education

Beaufort Co. schools’ $345M bond referendum is up for vote. Here’s what you need to know

For the third time in four years, Beaufort County School District is asking voters for a multimillion dollar commitment in the form of a school bond referendum — and they’re happy to tell you why this time is different.

If the $345 million referendum passes Tuesday, it will be the first to do so in 11 years. Referendums failed in 2016 and 2018, with naysayers citing a lack of trust in the school board and then-superintendent Jeff Moss.

But with six new board members and a new superintendent since the last vote, district officials are optimistic about the chances of their largest referendum since at least 1988.

If passed, the referendum will fund construction, technology and safety projects across the district’s 30 schools. Here’s what else you need to know.

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

What referendums can and can’t do

In South Carolina, school bond referendums are limited to funding capital projects, such as construction and land purchases. They cannot be used to increase staff pay, which makes up the majority of the district’s $254 million annual budget. The district is also bound by state law to only use the money from bond referendums for what’s listed on the ballot.

District superintendent Frank Rodriguez has pledged to set up an oversight committee if the referendum passes that will give regular reports on the use of referendum funds.

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.

Where is my polling place?

Using the form on the Election Commission’s website, you can determine your precinct location. Just enter your county, name and date of birth at http://bit.ly/checkyourvoterinfo.

The addresses for all Beaufort County polling locations are listed on the county website at https://www.beaufortcountysc.gov/vote/Polling-Locations.html.

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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.
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