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FATE OF CROWDED BLUFFTON SCHOOLS IN HANDS OF VOTERS ON APRIL 21

Voters who head to the polls later this month will have their own opinions about the Beaufort County Board of Education and Superintendent Jeff Moss, but the bond referendum isn’t about adults—it will decide the fate of Bluffton students in overcrowded schools.

County residents will vote on the $76 million bond referendum on April 21. The money would be used to build additional classrooms at River Ridge Academy and May River High School, construct a new school near May River High, and add career and technology education classrooms to Hilton Head, Bluffton and Beaufort High schools.

For students and teachers at the most crowded Bluffton schools, more room can’t come soon enough.

Bluffton resident Amanda Walrad says most of her eighth-grade daughter’s classes at River Ridge have more than 30 students. Her English teacher is instructing 37 students in one room.

“The teachers have done a fantastic job with alternative seating, bean bags, beach chairs,” said Walrad, a leader of STAND for Children of Beaufort County, a citizen’s group supporting the referendum. “But (the students) do complain often that it’s hard to concentrate just based on the number of bodies in the space.”

River Ridge, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and has a capacity of 1,013, now has 1,192 students, said principal Gary McCulloch. Projected enrollment for the 2018-19 school year is 1,291.

If the referendum passes, construction of additional classrooms would begin this spring, increasing River Ridge’s capacity to 1,400 students, according to school district spokesman Jim Foster. By McCulloch’s estimates, enrollment at River Ridge by the end construction — slated for January — would be about 1,500. May River High is facing a similar issue: Projected enrollment in five years is 1,936, and projected capacity with additional classrooms is 1,800. 

Some believe a new school, which Foster says could include grades kindergarten through eighth, is critical to accommodate this continued growth.

But not everyone agrees.

Beaufort County board member John Dowling represents Bluffton’s District 6. In December, he voted against holding the referendum because of changing cost estimates for the construction, and said holding the referendum in November would save $90,000 in election costs.

“We had fixed, for the short term, the overcrowding in Bluffton by purchasing portable classrooms,” Dowling wrote in a recent letter to the editor in The Island Packet.

That fix: Temporary classrooms at River Ridge and Pritchardville Elementary School at a cost of $1.1 million.

But Bluffton resident Dr. Barbara Nielsen, who was superintendent of the South Carolina Department of Education during the 1990s, says temporary classrooms are not ideal.

“They’re absolutely not safe, you can’t secure them, not in today’s world,” she says.

Voters also are grappling with months of infighting among school board members and Moss’ 2016 ethics violations related to the hiring of his wife within the district; his guilt was described as “inadvertent and unintentional” by the South Carolina Ethics Commission.

Further heightening tensions, three school district employees have been served federal subpoenas related to an FBI investigation into the construction of River Ridge and May River High, according to school board members. Foster declined to say whether the district knows any specifics about the investigation, or whether he thinks it will hinder the referendum from being passed.

“Rumors are always a distraction, no matter what they’re about,” Foster said. “Our hope is that the investigation will be concluded before April 21 so voters have only facts to consider.”

MORE ONLINE

To read about the referendum and its impact on local homeowners, go to www.beaufortcountyschools.net.