The addition of the two-story wing at May River High School includes 23 new classrooms, such as this one. Projects paid for by the 2019 bond referendum will help accommodate a 13% increase in student population since 2009. COURTESY BEAUFORT COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

Once Beaufort County residents voted for the 2019 school bond referendum – the first in 11 years – projects have been under way within the Beaufort County School District, despite the disruptions caused by lockdowns, shutdowns and sluggish supply chains.

The $345 million bond was slated to update, expand and improve the educational experiences of the county’s 22,000-plus students, and was the first one approved since 2008, when voters approved $162,735,000 in general bonds.

Almost two years after the more recent referendum, the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Area and the Beaufort Area Leagues will host a forum at 5 p.m. Sept. 22 at May River High School. The information being provided by those participating is expected to show whether projects are being completed according to the district’s established timetables and if projects are within expected costs, according to a LWV press release.

The leagues were among those who actively pushed for approval of the bond based on their independent study of the proposed projects.

“We wanted to go back to see what was happening with the referendum. We felt we had a major impact on getting it passed,” said Patricia Felton-Montgomery, the LWVHHI-BA Education Committee Chair. “Nationally, and at the state and therefore local levels, we have a whole book of action on many areas and one of them is education. … In terms of the legitimacy of us, we felt we had to go back to the public and say ‘this is what is happening with your tax dollars.’”

According to BCSD Chief Operations Officer Robert Oetting, who will be on the forum panel, the total funds encumbered and paid to date are $230,333,245 or 67% of the referendum. Projects that are 100% complete to date are Right Choices Alternative Education Program (safety/security, radios, technology/infrastructure); and St. Helena Early Childhood (playgrounds, radios).

“Projects, when including radios, have begun in every building in the district,” said Oetting. “We have completed playground projects at many schools, including Hilton Head Island International Baccalaureate, Bluffton Elementary School and Bluffton and Bluffton Early Childhood Center.”

Panelists on the forum will include Chief Planning Officer Carol Crutchfield, members of the Citizen-Led Oversight Committee (CLOC) on Referendum Projects, and student representatives from River Ridge Academy and May River High School. Special guests will be BCSD Superintendent Frank Rodriguez and Chief Instructional Services Officer Mary Stratos.

Two schools of particular interest are River Ridge Academy and May River High School. These are relatively new schools, and some might wonder why they needed improvements, Montgomery said.

River Ridge was built in 2015 and was over capacity in 2018. May River High School was built in 2016 and was nearing capacity in 2018. Student population had grown 13% since 2009, according to the district’s 2019 report card.

Projects at the academy added four classrooms on each of two existing wings and a new eight-classroom wing. The high school grew with a new two-story wing containing 23 classrooms.

“With all of the development going on S.C. 46 and S.C. 170 and the Parkway, we needed the schools, and all of this had been planned 20 years ago with the future land use plans,” Montgomery said.

Part of the presentation will include a PowerPoint that will show what is happening in all of the schools, including projects that started during the pandemic, and projects that are coming in the future.

“We have not had cost overruns on work once it was under contract.,” Oetting said. “We have had cost overruns on initial budgets. This has been mitigated by using referendum contingency. Projects so far have been completed on time.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.