In landslide, Beaufort Co. voters say ‘yes’ to $345 million for school construction

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the unofficial vote tally from the Beaufort County Board of Voter Registration and Elections as of Wednesday afternoon.

For the first time in 11 years, Beaufort County voters passed a school bond referendum Tuesday, approving $345 million to rebuild Robert Smalls International Academy, expand May River High School and River Ridge Academy, as well as upgrade technology and security across the district.

The measure passed with nearly 70 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results posted on the Beaufort County Board of Voter Registration and Elections website Wednesday afternoon.

More than 22,000 votes were cast, representing 17.6 percent of the county’s 128,503 registered voters.

Turnout was low overall across the county, but higher than in the 2018 school bond referendum, when only around 11 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

“For me it means hope,” parent Shannon Bedenbaugh said Tuesday night. “It means a promise for tomorrow. It means classrooms that are manageable. It means not sitting in classes where industrial fans have to be brought in while they’re going through lessons. It means not plugging in a hot plate in a science class and having to short out the whole side of the building.”

Bedenbaugh, who also sat on the district’s Community Project Review Committee and served on the board of bond referendum advocacy group Citizens for Better Schools Now, said the referendum results were also a vote of confidence in the district and the board.

“But most importantly, I feel like we have new leadership in place. I think people tonight have stood up and said we’re ready for a change,” she said.

The bond referendum was the district’s largest in at least 30 years, and came after two failed votes in 2016 and 2018 under an embattled superintendent and a dysfunctional school board.

The replacement of six of the 11 board members in the 2018 election and new superintendent Frank Rodriguez’s promises of a more transparent and communicative district appeared appeared to be enough to sway voters.

“It’s a new day in Beaufort County for the public schools,” board chairwoman Christina Gwozdz said Tuesday. “I thank the voters for recognizing the dire needs of our schools and for their vote of confidence in the school district and board of education.”

Also new this time around: endorsements.

Several civic and political groups in Beaufort County were vocal about their support for the bond referendum.

While STAND for Students and CARE, two activist groups in the county borne out of the Moss era, remained active in the community, on Facebook and at board meetings regarding the referendum, they were joined by a new advocacy group.

Citizens for Better Schools Now was formed in June by paid advisers Tom Gardo, president of Denarius Group on Hilton Head Island, and John Williams, creative principal of Williams Group PR in Beaufort, to advocate for the referendum, which both say will ultimately boost the local economy.

Gardo said Tuesday the group had raised $30,000 to promote the referendum, bolstered by Realtor groups that put on an independent postcard campaign after endorsing the referendum.

“The community as a whole has said the past is past,” he said. “It’s fantastic to see.”

There were no public comments on the referendum at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, but there was a familiar face in the crowd: former superintendent Herb Berg, who served in between Jeff Moss and Frank Rodriguez and created a community committee to pick the projects for this referendum.

Berg drove down from Alexandria, Va., to be in the county for election day; he was also at Tuesday night’s election party, held by Citizens for Better Schools Now and STAND for Students at Bluffton’s One Hot Mama’s.

He was joined by board chairwoman Gwozdz and vice chairwoman Cathy Robine, both Bluffton representatives coming straight from the school board meeting; as Gwozdz entered the crowd she raised her arms in a V for victory.

“I’m excited, it’s great,” Robine said. “We’re going to do exactly what we said we would, and do it with fidelity.”

What happens now

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.”

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.

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

According to a tax calculator on the Beaufort County School District’s website, a primary resident with a home valued at $200,000 will 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 will pay an additional $84 annually in taxes.

What voters approved

The referendum appeared on the ballot in two parts. Voters needed to pass part one, a $291 million package, in order to pass part two.

Part one of the referendum included 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 one passed with 15,700 voters, or 70 percent, voting yes, and 6,838 voting no. 22,538 votes were cast.

Part two is a $54 million package, which included 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

Part two passed with 15,233 voters, or 68 percent, voting yes, and 7,103 voting no. 22,336 votes were cast.

What changed since the last vote

Both the 2016 and 2018 referendum failures were largely motivated by a dysfunctional school board and two 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 ongoing 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.

Since Moss’ departure, the district was run by interim superintendent Herb 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.

Less than two weeks after the listening and learning tour finished, he began an eight-school series of town halls on the referendum. Many of the attendees at the first town hall, held at River Ridge Academy, were present at Tuesday’s election party.

“This has been a long time coming,” STAND for Students organizer Jodi Srutek said at One Hot Mama’s. “I think everyone was ready to turn the page.”

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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.