Beaufort County Schools are finally going to get the facelift they’ve been wanting for more than a decade.
Voters overwhelmingly approved a school bond referendum in November that approved a $345 million expenditure to expand two schools – River Ridge Academy and May River High School – and completely rebuild Robert Smalls International Academy. District-wide security and technology upgrades will also be included in this endeavor.
It marked the first time Beaufort County schools passed a referendum in 11 years, despite overwhelming growth of more than 3,000 students in the past decade. Usually, growth of that size requires a referendum to be passed about every four years in order to add new classroom space and expand existing space.
However, voters have not been willing to pass it. Things really came to a head the last two times a referendum was on the ballot – in 2016 and 2018 – as voters rejected the proposal based on a lack of faith and trust in the superintendent and the school board.
However, since the last failed effort just a year earlier, six of the 11 Board members were replaced and Frank Rodriguez was hired as the new superintendent, promising more transparency.
That change has made a difference, and the much-needed funding will finally be available in the district.
The district created an all-volunteer Community Project Review Committee to identify the needs of the district. A grassroots advocacy group known as Citizens for Better Schools Now worked with other local organizations to inform and educate voters as to the importance of passing this bond, the largest in more than 30 years.
The Community Project Review Committee logged more than 900 hours reviewing the districts needs and identified a total cost of $629 million for all projects needed. The Board of Education selected $345 million of those projects and put them on the ballot where more than 70 percent of voters approved.
“For me it means hope,” Shannon Bedenbaugh, a parent and member of both the Committee and the Advocacy Group told The Island Packet. “It means a promise for tomorrow. It means classrooms that are manageable. It means not sitting in classes where industrial fans have to be brought in while they’re going through lessons. It means not plugging in a hot plate in a science class and having to short out the whole side of the building.
“But most importantly, I feel like we have new leadership in place. I think people have stood up and said we’re ready for a change.”
Several civic and political groups in Beaufort County were vocal about their support for the bond referendum, including the Hilton Head Area Association of REALTORS®.
The school district will now borrow the $345 million in 25-year bonds to pay for the designated projects. According to information released by the School District, the expansion of River Ridge Academy and May River High School are already in the design phase with construction set to begin as soon as the bid is accepted. Other projects will be phased in between 2020 and 2023.
Additionally, the District indicated that the tax increase will be approximately $28 annually for each $100,000 of value in a home for a primary homeowner. Secondary homeowners (those who have vacation homes) will see a slightly larger tax increase, of about $42 annually per $100,000 of value. Those number could change during the life of the bond though based on tax reassessments, other bonds or other economic factors.
However, the money from this bond is mandated by state law to fund capital projects and specifically those listed on the ballot and cannot be used to increase staff salaries.
Rodriguez told The Island Packet that he would set up an oversight committee that would provide regular updates on the use of referendum funding.
The referendum was actually split into two parts on the ballot. Part one, was worth $291 million. Part two was worth $54 million. However, Part two was not allowed to be passed without the passage of part one.
Voters approved this $291 million package by a 70-30 vote. This package included:
- Renovations, construction and necessary demolition at Battery Creek High School and Hilton Head Island Middle School: $88.3 million
- Demolishing and replacing Robert Smalls International Academy: $71 million
- Updating technology infrastructure across the district: $55.3 million
- Expansion of May River High School and River Ridge Academy: $26 million
- Safety and security improvements to every school in the district: $25.7 million
- Renovations at Beaufort Elementary School: $24.2 million
Voters approved this $54 million package by a 68-32 vote. This package included:
- Athletic improvements at all district high schools: $22 million
- Construction and renovation for CATE (Career at Technology Education) at Battery Creek and May River High Schools: $12 million
- Playground improvements at district early childhood centers, elementary schools, and preK-8 schools: $8.7 million
- Athletic improvements at Beaufort Middle School, Whale Branch Middle School, River Ridge Academy, Bluffton Middle School and H.E. McCracken Middle School: $7.6 million
- Designing renovations for Hilton Head Island High School: $3.8 million