SCHOOL VOTE

Typography

REFERENDUM WOULD FUND UPDATES AT SCHOOLS ACROSS BEAUFORT COUNTY

Beaufort County voters again will face a school bond referendum when they go to the ballot box in November. And after the past two proposals fell short, public school advocates say it is even more imperative that the latest one passes this time around.

A group of local citizens has formed the nonprofit group Better Schools Now! to promote passage of the referendum. The group has a broad-based steering committee with representatives in Port Royal, Sheldon, Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island, and two local public relations firms — the Williams Group out of Beaufort and the Denarius Group on Hilton Head — will provide strategic counsel, marketing assistance and media planning. The group has launched a website, www.voteyesbeaufortcountyschools.org, to provide information about the benefits of the referendum, voter information and how to volunteer and contribute financially.

Beaufort County’s last successful bond referendum was 11 years ago; voters rejected ballot measures in 2016 and 2018. Meanwhile, pockets of the county — especially in Bluffton — have seen population explosions that have left even new schools overcrowded and searching for options to accommodate more students.

WHAT’S ON THE REFERENDUM?

The proposed referendum has two parts. The first referendum question would include $290 million in funding for safety and security upgrades at all district schools; technology infrastructure upgrades at schools district-wide; classroom additions at River Ridge Academy and May River High; a replacement building for Robert Smalls International Academy; and renovations at Beaufort Elementary School, Hilton Head Island Middle School and Battery Creek High School.

The second question of the referendum — which will go into effect only if the first is approved — asks voters to consider an additional $54 million in career and technology education expansions at Battery Creek and May River high schools; design work for renovations at Hilton Head Island High School; improvements to athletic facilities at district middle and high schools; and playground improvements at  early childhood centers, elementary and pre-k-to-eighth-grade schools.

HOW WERE SCHOOLS’ NEEDS IDENTIFIED?

All of the projects were included in a comprehensive list of $629 million in facilities needs identified earlier this year by an independent committee of county residents. Members of the Community Project Review Committee worked more than 900 hours — visiting 26 schools in Beaufort and other districts and receiving presentations from outside experts — before sending the district-wide projects list to interim Superintendent Herb Berg. Committee members also received presentations from a safety and security consulting firm, a demographer, four architectural consultants, the town of Bluffton, a playground equipment vendor, a furniture vendor and district staff.

Cost estimates for referendum projects were developed by a private-sector firm contracted by the school district.

“I was very impressed with the level of detail that they put into crafting this package,” said Jodie Srutek, co-founder of the advocacy group STAND for Students. “I think in the past people had concerns about not trusting the superintendent, or not trusting the board, or not trusting the process. I think over the past year they’ve done a good job of correcting those concerns. I think we’re finally at a place where people can put the past behind them and focus on the needs that we have.”

HOW MUCH WILL THIS COST ME?

If both parts of the referendum are approved, the average cost to resident homeowners will be about $9 a month, advocates say.

“A ‘yes’ vote for the referendum is a yes vote for our county’s quality of life, at a very minimal cost to homeowners,” said John Williams, president of the Williams Group, who was an assistant superintendent for the school district when the last referendum was approved in 2008. “It’s time for our school system to catch up its facilities in terms of crowding, deferred maintenance and safety upgrades.”

The primary opposition to the past two failed bond initiatives has come from CARE, or Citizens Advocating Responsible Education, which formed in 2015 in response to what the group considered unethical conduct by former Superintendent Jeff Moss.

A ‘YES’ VOTE FOR THE REFERENDUM IS A YES VOTE FOR OUR COUNTY’S QUALITY OF LIFE, AT A VERY MINIMAL COST TO HOMEOWNERS.

– JOHN WILLIAMS, PRESIDENT OF THE WILLIAMS GROUP

CARE has not taken an official position on the upcoming referendum vote, according to founder Richard Bisi, but the group has some concerns about the school board’s track record on financial oversight, as well as the amount of money earmarked for schools in northern Beaufort County that are projected to be well under 50 percent capacity in five years.

Advocates say it’s time to trust a new school board and superintendent to make necessary and overdue improvements throughout the district. 

“The stakes are really high for our county’s future in this referendum,” said Tom Gardo, president of the Denarius Group. “People need to realize that a ‘no’ vote doesn’t punish wrongdoing by the past superintendent or school board. All it does is hurt our young people — both now and into the future.”