Voters decide fate of Beaufort County Schools funding referendum

BEAUFORT CO., SC (WTOC) - Beaufort County voters headed to the polls Saturday to approve or deny a $76 million dollar school construction bond referendum.

The referendum would increase the school debt millage on property taxes from just over 31 mills to 34 mills to build additional classrooms at River Ridge Academy, a new wing at May River High, career and technical education (CATE) centers at Beaufort High School, Bluffton High School and Hilton Head Island High School, and a new school in Bluffton adjacent to May River High to help handle a huge influx of students in Bluffton.

"Right now, we need the space in our classrooms," said Amanda Walrad, a parent in favor of the referendum and founding member of Stand for Children of Beaufort County. "I have a daughter who's in a class with 40 students. They're sitting on the floor. I have teachers on carts. I have classes being conducted in the cafeteria, in the library, multiple at a time, so we really need the space."

Beaufort County School District leaders said from 2000 to 2018, Bluffton's population increased from about 1,300 to nearly 20,000, a more than 1,400 percent increase.

Chris Short moved to Bluffton in 2010, and he said he's seen the town double in size. He agrees there's a need for more schools, more space and better teacher pay, but he voted against the referendum.

"I don't support this referendum and the main thing is I don't trust the superintendent," he said. "I don't trust the school board, so I have no trust that the money is going to be spent, no matter what they say, in the right way and in the right area."

With four children in Beaufort County public schools, Short supports improvements for students and teachers, but with recent back and forth between board members in meetings, the public accusing the superintendent of nepotism and the district receiving two federal subpoenas, he said now isn't the time to pass the referendum.

"There's too much deceit, outright lying, intimidation and lack of honesty and candor and transparency," Short said. "So what I would like to see is this vote fail today, new super in place at some point in the future, new school board members in the fall, and maybe a revote on the referendum or something similar next spring."

With school board elections already slated for November, Walrad said any new members would likely handle the projects anyway.

"Once it's approved, it'll only be in the planning stages," she said. "It takes quite awhile to get ground broken, so my feeling is if you feel that way, vote in November and make your voices heard from now until then."

If the referendum is approved, someone with a $200,000 house would see about an $18 increase in property taxes. The district created an online tax calculator for residents to figure out their expected increase. If it fails, the district said it'll consider bigger class sizes, rezoning or more mobile classrooms to handle the students.

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