On Nov. 5, Beaufort County residents will be asked to vote for a $345 million bond referendum that will update, expand and improve the educational experiences of the county's 22,000-plus students.
This is the third referendum in five years put forward by the county Board of Education and - if approved - will be the first one passed in 11 years since voters approved $162,735,000 in general bonds in 2008.
In January, then-Interim Superintendent Herb Berg told the board of education that growing school districts generally need to approve a bond referendum every four to five years to accommodate increasing enrollment and preserve existing facilities.
The bond amount requested is half of the total submitted earlier this year to Berg when the Community Project Review Committee (CPRC) identified a total of $629 million in facilities needs.
Jim Foster, director of communications for Beaufort County School District, said the district staff are optimistic that the referendum will get the votes it needs to pass. The recent hiring of Superintendent Frank Rodriguez is one of the reasons.
"We have a new superintendent who is very popular, and only two of the current 11 school board members were on the board in 2016," Foster said.
The referendum is the result of work by the CPRC, an independent group of county residents. In its final report, the CPRC stated that the past two failed referendums were not due to the cost or the list of needs, but "because voters lacked confidence in the district's Board of Education and superintendent."
When asked how passing the referendum might impact all of Beaufort County's residents, Rodriguez said state law prohibited him from advocating for or against it.
"But I can say this: Community volunteers working on a broad-based county-wide committee spent more than 900 hours evaluating the school district's facilities needs, and our Board of Education then prioritized those needs for the Nov. 5 ballot," he said. "It's my job to give voters accurate information about what our schools need."
Of all the projects listed, one item was deemed the most important.
"Our county-wide committee of community volunteers designated improved building safety and security as the top goal, and I certainly would agree with that," said Rodriguez.
Other projects will renovate inadequate facilities and add classroom space to address enrollment growth. Student population has grown 13 percent since 2009, according to the district's 2019 report card.
In the two-question ballot on the referendum, the first question requests $290,555,000 for security and safety upgrades, and technology infrastructure upgrades at all schools, improvements to athletic facilities at all high schools, and playground improvements at early childhood centers and PreK-8 schools.
South of the Broad River, the projects also include classroom additions at River Ridge Academy and May River High School; and renovations at Hilton Head Island Middle School.
For the Bluffton and Hilton Head school clusters, the second question requests $54,055,000 to support Career and Technology Education (CATE) expansions at May River; and improvements to athletic facilities at River Ridge, Bluffton and H.E. McCracken middle schools.
Projects on Hilton Head will cost $52.6 million; Bluffton projects will cost $77.9 million.
CATE programs provide training in automotive technologies, business management, engineering, health sciences, information technologies, public safety, and welding.
When the 2008 referendum passed, costs included construction of M.C. Riley and Bluffton Early Childhood Centers, Pritchardville Elementary School; several building additions, including the H.E. McCracken Band and Drama Room; and land for the May River complex, which opened in August 2016, and River Ridge Academy, which opened in August 2015.
Since then, all district projects have been on hold, including much-needed additions at schools like May River High, which was built with expansion in mind.
In determining the projects and detailing the costs, the community committee listened to presentations from outside experts, from a safety and security consulting firm to architectural consultants to district staff.
The CPRC closed its final report with one admonition:
"Voter rejection of future bond referendums will not change the district's facilities needs. And the longer we wait to address those needs, the more expensive that process will become and the more conditions will deteriorate."
The new superintendent intends to keep the county residents involved and informed if it passes.
"If the referendum is approved, the district will set up a county-wide committee of community volunteers who will monitor every dollar of referendum fund expenditures to make sure voters get exactly what they approved, and in the most cost-effective way possible," Rodriguez said. "Voters have to be confident that everything's on the up-and-up because at some point down the road, we know a growing district like ours will need additional bond referendums. Growing school districts typically need bond referendums every four years or so."
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.