The Beaufort County School Board is hoping the third time will be the charm for getting voters to approve funds for school expansion and other needs.
The newly installed board discussed the possibility of proposing what could be the district's third referendum in five years. That was after members reversed a decision made Dec. 11 by the previous board, which voted 6-5 to use what is called "8 percent funds" in design and construction for two Bluffton area schools.
Approval had been given at that time to pay for architectural designs, permits and bidding for additions at both River Ridge Academy and May River High School, as well as going ahead with the expansion construction at River Ridge.
The new board voted 10-1 to eliminate the construction but retained the funding for beginning the design process. The one negative vote was actually an abstention by William Smith.
"We reversed the construction costs for River Ridge and left the design. We returned to what was originally requested, which was the money for the design for the two schools," said board member David Streibinger. "Using 8 percent money should be the very last resort."
Interim superintendent Herbert Berg reminded the board a referendum would be no easy task. d"In any school district, approving a bond referendum is always difficult. One of the common characteristics of approvals on a referendum is what a board thinks about it," Berg said. "When a board is in support, when the board is generally unanimous, it sends a signal to the public that the adults who manage the place think the referendum is necessary."
The 8 percent comes from the total assessed value of all property in the county - homes, land, cars, boats, etc. - and is how much a school district can borrow without going to the voters with a referendum.
School district spokesman James Foster said that the total assessed value for calculation purposes is $1,854,321,970 and 8 percent of that is $148,345,758.
The district's debt capacity, however, is estimated at $27,378,004, according to board member Richard Geier. Debt capacity is the amount of money a company or individual can pay back in a specified amount of time.
Unlike referendum funding, which is paid back over a period of 25 to 30 years, the district's 8 percent funding is designed to be repaid in four years.
By using $6.3 million of the district's 8 percent funds for both planning and construction, that total would be down to $21,078,004.
"According to annual financial statements, the district building assets are almost $750 million," Geier told the board. "That $20 million will not go far if the district experiences structural damages in a major hurricane, and 8 percent borrowing is our only quick avenue to borrow emergency funds."
The reversal designates $480,000 to be spent on funding for River Ridge and $1.15 million for the two-story addition for May River.
"This would bring the debt capacity to about $25 million," said Geier, "leaving room for flexibility in case of a natural disaster. Otherwise, we just have to hope and pray we can get through next summer without a hurricane. 'Hope' is not a good strategic planning method."
Both schools were built anticipating future area growth and expansion in mind. That future is now, with River Ridge at 105 percent of a capacity that includes eight mobile classrooms installed this year. May River is at 97 percent.
The expansions would bring River Ridge to 1,400 seats and May River to 1,800. Eight mobile classrooms will be installed this summer at May River to provide immediate relief to the overcrowding.
In 2015, the board failed to get voter endorsement on a penny tax referendum that could have brought in as much as $282 million over a 10-year period, more than the $217,108,523 needed at that time to cover district projects. The revenue would come by adding another 1 percent to the 6 percent sales taxes collected on paper products, soap, pet food, alcoholic beverages, ready-to-eat foods and more.
The referendum put before voters in April 2018 requested approval for $76 million in 25-year bonds that would have alleviated some of the overcrowding in Bluffton-area schools with construction, as well as added to additional curriculum. Only 28 percent of the voters supported the referendum.
The one dissenting voice to suggesting yet another referendum came from board member William Smith, who was also a member last year.
"I don't know if I can support the referendum because this is a fairly new board. The community is still concerned about how we handle stuff," he said. "To spend $130,000 to run another referendum to have another referendum fail right now, I think would be a disservice to the taxpayer citizens. As well as having a new super coming in and throwing them into the referendum could be kind of dangerous now, too."
Berg told the board he would be creating a new survey to get a feel for how much the public would support a school referendum in November.
"If the numbers don't work, you might not want to run with it," Berg said. "Even with the survey, even with a great plan, even with a great new superintendent, even with the greatest campaign on earth, bond referendums are tough to pass."
Should there be a referendum, it will be up to the voters to make the decision to pay for what the school board requests.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.