Beaufort Today -

Whale Branch advocates for arts center, Moss proposes $120M referendum

A $4.4 million gymnasium at Whale Branch Early College High School is on the Beaufort County School District’s to-do list for 2018.

Last week, community members packed a school board meeting demanding a planned performing arts center also be built within that timeframe.

Superintendent Jeff Moss proposed a $120 million bond referendum to fund the district’s five-year capital projects, which includes the $12.4 million auditorium.

If the referendum doesn’t receive voter support, Moss requested the board add the auditorium project to the gym, building both at the same time through the 8-percent financing option.

An auditorium is a priority for many in the Whale Branch community.

Whale Branch principal Mona Lise Dickson told the board she cannot host chorus or band events because of a lack of space. She asked how she is supposed to engage her students if they are not equipped with the same facilities as the other high schools.

“The school district’s personalized learning approach will prepare graduates who compete and succeed in an ever-changing global society and career marketplace. We’re on an unlevel playing field. We’re not on the same level as our other high schools,” Dickson said.

“We work with diverse families in our communities to ensure that our students perform at an internationally competitive level in an environment that is nurturing, safe and engaging. How can we engage when we are not on equal ground?”

Dickson said it has been a 17-year fight to get the school completely built and now it is time to “put it to rest.”

Voters passed a referendum to build Whale Branch in 2000, but it was delayed for nearly a decade before a judge’s order moved construction forward and the school opened in 2010.

The auditorium and second gym were removed from the construction plan because of increased costs.

Dickson was one of 15 people who spoke out against the board’s having not approved funding for the performing arts center.

Both projects were listed on the district’s capital improvements referendum that failed in November.

“Their zip code shouldn’t determine the type of facility they have,” Whale Branch Middle School principal Chad Cox said of students. “We’re not asking for anything extra; we’re asking for what everyone else has.”

Xavier Pierce, a ninth-grade student at Whale Branch, said he understands the importance of having a facility that supports the arts.

“We don’t have equal opportunities. We have a wonderful fine arts department, but we can’t hold events properly,” Pierce said.

“We can’t sit families in cushioned seats. We don’t deserve that. We deserve to walk into nice facility where everyone can enjoy the show. We need a change and need it really fast.”

‘Traditional bond, shorter timeframe’

Moss brought a new $120 million referendum before the board, reminding it of the alternative funding options they discussed before November’s 10-year referendum failed: redistricting, a traditional five-year bond referendum and 8-percent financing.

“The November vote was a 54-46 split, which tells me our community prefers a traditional bond and a shorter timeframe,” Moss said.

If the board passes a resolution this month, Moss said, the referendum could go before the voters as soon as June.

The breakdown of projects is:

• $12 million for HVAC repairs.

• $18.6 million for roof repairs.

•$48.4 million for expansions or renovations.

• $39.5 million for new school construction.

Board member Joseph Dunkle asked what would happen if the board moves forward with another referendum and it fails again.

“We will have to look at redistricting, increased class sizes, modular classrooms or set a tax rate in which no one could afford to live,” Moss said.

JoAnn Orishak raised concerns about $88 million being designated for new construction, including classroom expansions at Hilton Head Island’s middle and high schools and Bluffton’s River Ridge Academy, a new Bluffton school and the Whale Branch auditorium.

She said school choice may be impacting growth at certain schools.

“I don’t believe we should be expanding brick and mortar because of school choice or just because it has a popular program,” Orishak said. “We shouldn’t expand the school to accommodate the level of interest there because years down the road the program may not be there anymore and the student population may not be consistent with the building that we build.”

But Moss and board members Evva Anderson and Christina Gwozdz said the projected growth in Bluffton cannot be ignored.

Dunkle said the district could return to the 90-percent capacity rule when considering school choice applications rather than 98 percent, which was recently approved by the board.

“That could alleviate some overcrowding,” Dunkle said.

Dunkle asked about the cost to hold a special election for the referendum, but Moss said he could not provide that number last week. No official vote was taken last week, but it could go before the board again at its March 21 meeting.

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