Board sends bad message with expensive renovation

The Beaufort County Board of Education's decision to go ahead with a $425,000 renovation at the district's central office is disappointing to say the least.

In July, when the board voted to explore the idea, it was described as an opportunity to create a meeting space for the school board that would give it the capability to tape and televise its meetings or broadcast them live on the school district website. The board would save the $22,500 it pays Beaufort County annually to meet in council chambers and for broadcast services.

Last weekend, with the vote to go ahead with the renovation, it became a videoconferencing training center for teachers, as well as meeting space for the school board.

Certainly, that training use makes it look better for the board to borrow $425,000 for this work.

But the reasoning falls flat when it comes at the same time the board considers closing schools to save money. And it is not helped by the argument that this money comes from the district's capital budget and not its operating budget. It all comes out of the same collective taxpayer pocket.

It also is not helped by the argument the board did not go through with plans to build a new multi-million-dollar central district office, first approved in a referendum in 2000. Most of the $5.1 million voters approved for that project, which got mired in zoning issues at the Okatie site selected, was eventually used to build the Whale Branch high school. A proposal to include $11 million for a new office in a $163 million bond referendum in 2008 did not make the cut.

We're glad the board chose instead to consolidate district offices in the old Battery Creek High School on Mink Point Boulevard. But that doesn't justify spending $425,000 for this renovation under today's financial circumstances.

Superintendent Valerie Truesdale said the technology in the new space would allow employees throughout the district to receive some training via videoconferencing, allowing them to avoid trips to the central office in Beaufort.

What does this type of training cost now compared with the cost of renovating and operating this space? How often does the training take place?

Has the district looked at existing public facilities on both ends of the county that might serve the same purpose at far less cost?

One of the board's selling points is that special meetings, committee meetings and weekend work sessions are held away from the county facility and its broadcast capabilities. The increased transparency would be commendable, but is there a less expensive way to achieve it?

What would it cost to hold those additional meetings in county facilities with those capabilities?

The board hasn't convinced us that this is a necessary expense, especially at this price and at this time.