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LOCAL ELECTIONS FOCUS ON SCHOOLS, GROWTH

Beaufort County residents won’t find many items on the ballot when they go to the polls Nov. 5, but the issues they’ll vote on have high stakes. 

The most notable item on the ballot is the Beaufort County School District bond referendum, which includes funding for a comprehensive list of projects that will impact schools throughout the county. Residents of the towns of Bluffton and Port Royal will also cast ballots in municipal elections. 

Here’s everything you need to know before heading to the polls Nov. 5. 

SCHOOL BOND REFERENDUM

The Beaufort County School District hasn’t successfully passed a referendum in 11 years, and voters have rejected two ballot initiatives in the past three years. 

Advocates for the $344 million referendum, which is split into two separate questions, say the school district needs the funding for capital improvements throughout the county focused on four main areas: improving school safety measures for students and staff; renovating or replacing aging facilities; adding classroom space to address enrollment growth; and upgrading technology infrastructure. 

Question 1 includes $290 million in funding for safety and security upgrades and technology infrastructure improvements throughout the district, additional classrooms at River Ridge Academy and May River High, replacement of Robert Smalls International Academy, and renovations at Beaufort Elementary, Hilton Head Island Middle, and Battery Creek High. 

Question 2 provides an additional $54 million in Career and Technology Education expansions at Battery Creek High and May River High, design work for renovations at Hilton Head Island High School, essential improvements to athletic facilities at middle and high schools throughout the district, and playground improvements throughout the district. 

The second question will go into effect only if the first is approved. 

The list of projects to be funded by a successful referendum came from a list of $629 million in needs identified by a Community Project Review Committee — an independent, select committee of Beaufort County residents that spent more than 900 hours visiting 26 schools in Beaufort County and around the state and receiving presentations from outside experts before producing a comprehensive district-wide list of capital needs. The Beaufort County Board of Education then prioritized the CPRC-identified projects into two smaller subsets for inclusion in the Nov. 5 ballot questions. 

Numerous groups have endorsed approving the referendum, including the Beaufort County Democratic Party, the Beaufort County Republican Party, the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, Lowcountry Indivisible, the Greater Island Committee, the town of Bluffton, Beaufort-Jasper Realtors, Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors, the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Beaufort County League of Women Voters, and Native Island Leadership. 

Citizens Advocating Responsible Education, which has opposed the past two school bond referenda, has been less vocal this time around, but co-founder Richard Bisi said he still has concerns about several items included in the referendum — such as the amount of funding allocated for schools where enrollment is declining and the $71 million price tag to replace Robert Smalls International Academy in Beaufort. Also, 70 percent of the funds in Question 2 would go to athletics facilities and playgrounds, two items Bisi said ranked low on the priority list produced by the CPRC, upon which he served. 

“Advocating ‘for the children’ does not mean that logical, tough questions should be ignored,” Bisi said. 

If the referendum fails, the school district will have to fund the projects using so-called 8% funding — the amount the district can borrow annually to fund capital projects without a referendum is capped at 8% of the total assessed property value in the district — and the district estimates it could take more than 30 years to fund all the projects the CPRC identified as needs.

HOW MUCH WILL IT COST ME?

According to a tax calculator on the Beaufort County School District’s website, a successful referendum would cost homeowners an extra $14 on their annual property taxes per $100,000 of assessed value.

For example, a home with an assessed value of $200,000 will see an estimated tax increase of $56, a home assessed at $500,000 would have an estimated tax increase of $140, and a home assessed at $1 million would have an estimated tax increase of $280.

BLUFFTON TOWN COUNCIL

Town of Bluffton residents will have one additional decision to make, as three candidates are on the ballot for two seats on Bluffton Town Council. 

Incumbents Dan Wood and Harry Lutz are running for re-election against challenger Bridgette Frazier. 

Wood has served four years on Town Council after retiring from Palmetto Electric Cooperative and is a longtime member of Bluffton Rotary Club. The focus of his campaign has been “smart growth” and sustainability.

Lutz is also seeking a second four-year term and is campaigning on the promise of “finishing what he started.” He said he wants the town to work with regional partners to manage growth.

Frazier is a teacher at Hilton Head Island High who owns a catering business and said she wants to represent the working class. The daughter of the late Oscar Frazier, a longtime Bluffton councilman and mayor pro tempore, Frazier has stated her desire to find a solution to the town’s affordable housing crisis. 

WHEN AND WHERE CAN I VOTE?

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 5, and voters will cast their ballots at their precinct’s designated polling location. A list of precincts is available at www.beaufortcountysc.gov/vote.

In-person absentee voting is available in Bluffton at 61B Ulmer Road and in Beaufort at 15 John Galt Road. These locations are open for voting from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday leading up to the election and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 4.

For criteria for absentee voting and more election information, go to www.beaufortcountysc.gov/vote.