Education

What’s next for Beaufort Co. schools after voters passed $345 million bond referendum

On Tuesday, Beaufort County voters approved a $345 million tax ask for Beaufort County School District, approving a school bond referendum for the first time in 11 years.

For many, the nearly 70 percent “yes” vote resolved questions around restored trust in the district after shake ups in the board of education and superintendent’s office.

But now that the money is approved, what comes next?

Here’s what to expect in the coming months for referendum oversight and construction projects.

Oversight committee

During a series of referendum town halls in October, superintendent Frank Rodriguez spoke about setting up a referendum oversight committee if the measure passed to monitor the district’s use of referendum funds.

It’s unclear how many people will be on the committee, but district spokesman Jim Foster said Friday Rodriguez plans on announcing the members of the oversight committee “within the next few weeks.”

“We’ve reached out to a number of different sources, including the chambers of commerce and people the superintendent has met in the four months he’s been here that have expressed interest in getting involved,” Foster said.

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.

Several of those committee members remained active in the referendum process after the committee’s work finished. Member Debbie Burke, who went on to co-chair the referendum advocacy group Citizens for Better Schools Now, said the experience helped her break out of “her own little bubble.”

“Once we started touring the schools and getting to know each other, we began to realize the needs across the entire district,” she said at a Tuesday referendum celebration.

First construction

The district’s first referendum projects will be the expansion of Bluffton-based River Ridge Academy and May River High School, two of the district’s most overcrowded schools at 105 percent and 97 percent student capacity respectively.

The expansion at both schools, expected to cost a combined $26 million, will add classrooms that can hold up to 400 students. This will bump May River’s capacity to 1,800 and River Ridge’s to 1,413 — or 1,573 if the district keeps mobile classrooms on campus, which Oetting said will depend on growth.

According to Foster, construction will take about 10 months at River Ridge, and 16 months at May River. Construction will begin once bond money starts coming in to the district.

Financial advisers

In order to receive bond money, the board of education has to approve a bond counsel and financial adviser to start the process of issuing bonds. Once both positions are approved, issuing bonds will take “a few months,” Foster said.

At the board’s Nov. 19 meeting, a district procurement committee will recommend a financial adviser to the board after reviewing applications the district received. The board will also discuss the bond counsel position.

Previously, the district’s bond counsel has been Frannie Heizer of Burr & Forman, LLP, and its financial adviser has been Brian Nurick of Compass Municipal Advisors.

Both are named as defendants in a March 6 lawsuit filed by Berkeley County School District, which raised concerns for some board members and partially prompted the board’s finance committee’s search to request new bids for financial services.

Berkeley County School District alleges that Heizer, Nurick and their respective employers aided that district’s chief financial officer Brantley Thomas, who is now serving 16 years in prison for concurrent federal and state sentences, in stealing nearly $1.3 million from the school district.

Heizer filed a motion to dismiss the charges against her in May, and to request a change in venue from the Berkeley County Court of Common Pleas.

Nurick’s response to the complaint denied the vast majority of allegations, and said in July that in 20 years, he had “never, ever had a problem with one of our clients.”

It is not known whether Heizer or Nurick re-applied for the positions.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the board’s discussions of hiring a bond counsel and financial adviser.

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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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