April 21 is an important day for public school students in Beaufort County. It is a day our citizens will decide whether or not students and teachers will be put first and provided with sufficient permanent classroom space and highly-demanded career and technology education for our county’s future.
This is not about our superintendent or any member of the school board. It is about our moral obligation to provide a safe and quality learning environment geared to the overall success of each and every student.
Population growth is here. Up-to-date census data report population growth from 1990 (86,425) to a predicted 200,000 in 2020. School-age children represent about 16 percent of the total population.
Given these statistics, it is important to clearly understand why school construction is needed sooner than originally anticipated. A quality education cannot be provided if there is insufficient space in which to provide it.
Why a referendum?
The state of South Carolina does not provide any funding for school construction or building maintenance. Districts may not use state operating or instructional funds on buildings or maintenance.
Developers do not contribute impact fees to our schools and the cost of school construction projects caused by growth rises 7 percent annually. Delay of even six months will add millions to the cost.
Districts have limited ways to pay for building needs. They may borrow up to 8 percent of their current assessed capital value for countywide building, renovations and maintenance projects approved by the school board. Any funds needed for additional projects above the 8 percent must go to the voters for approval.
District-approved bond funds can only be spent on the specific projects outlined on the referendum ballot and are required to be accounted for separately from other building funds.
School referendums have always been held by special elections.
New Career and Technical Education (CATE) program buildings provide an opportunity to earn a certificate in a high-skill, high-wage, high-demand career and assists in meeting current county employment needs.
What are the safeguards?
School districts are required by law to have an annual comprehensive financial audit every year by a certified accounting firm approved by school boards.
All construction funds are part of that audit.
This audit must be reported to the State Department of Education, local school boards and members of the community.
The Beaufort County School District provides regular financial reports and quarterly capital expenditure reports to the school board and the public so we can all monitor and track the building progress.
Are there alternatives to building construction?
In place of new school buildings, some community members have suggested school rezoning. However, if students from Bluffton were to be bused to northern Beaufort County, it would mean students must be up extremely early and ride on a bus for more than 1½ hours each way.
Some others have suggested double sessions (morning and afternoon). This would place a real burden on working families, athletics, etc.
Others have suggested buying portables. This is a temporary solution to overcrowding. Portables add additional safety concerns, they come with additional infrastructure costs, they depreciate quickly, they are costly to remove and they should not be considered permanent.
These suggestions do not put students’ achievement and their well-being as the first priority. As with other school districts I have observed, the significant academic progress this district has made will decline if the local community does not support its schools. To delay building only kicks the can needlessly down the road at student and taxpayer expense.
This local referendum is about our community’s students and teachers. It is time to put personality issues behind us and join together to do what is best for our collective future. A “yes” vote sends a strong message to our educational community that we support a quality learning environment for our youth.
Join me on April 21 in voting “yes” on this critical issue.
Barbara S. Nielsen of Bluffton is a former State Superintendent of Education.