School bond referendum fails in Beaufort County

BEAUFORT CO., SC (WTOC) - Beaufort County voters rejected a multi-million dollar construction bond request from the Beaufort County School District to build and expand schools.

Of 14,557 votes cast, 10,519 people, about 72 percent, voted against the referendum to allow the district to borrow $76 million, according to unofficial election results from the Beaufort County Election Commission. 4,038 people, about 28 percent, of voters cast ballots in favor.

Those voting against said recent dysfunctional school board meetings, the public accusing the superintendent of nepotism and the district receiving two federal subpoenas dissolved their trust in district leadership.

"What I'd like to see is an outside, third-party come in that we can trust, everybody can trust - not the school board, not the superintendent - to put together the proper numbers that we need, and then we can trust going forward that the money's going to be spent," said Christ Short, a parent who voted against the referendum. "I don't mind paying more for taxes. I have four kids that take advantage of the great public schools here. I have great respect for the teachers, and we're happy with the school that we're in, even though we get bussed a little ways. But not for this."

The referendum would have increased 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.

Parents in favor of the proposal said those additions are badly needed.

"We really do need that space," said Jodie Srutek, a parent in favor of the referendum. "The numbers aren't imaginary, you know? Our enrollment numbers are reported to the state board of education. No one's trying to pull the wool over your eyes. We do have kids, you know, 40 to a classroom, and it's not OK. We also do need that career and technical education."

The district listed several alternatives to accommodate students ahead of Saturday's vote. Increasing class sizes, rezoning students to schools with available space and purchasing more mobile classrooms are options leaders say they will consider. The Beaufort County School District says the Board of Education is considering a five-year, $5 million plan to buy more mobile classrooms.

Short said if voters elect new school board members in November and the school board appoints a new superintendent, he would reconsider the same or a similar referendum.

"If I had more trust, if things had been handled differently in the last year, if there'd been more honesty, if they weren't refusing to release the subpoenas, there would be an inclination, maybe, to give them a little more benefit of the doubt," Short said. "But when you won't release subpoenas, when you hide behind the idea that you legally can't when you legally can - anybody who watched West Wing for 5 minutes can tell you that - when you're just being dishonest for the sake of being dishonest, it's a problem, and I can't vote yes for that."

About 11 percent of registered voters in Beaufort County cast ballots in Saturday's election.

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