Pitch for new $50M Wilmington school strikes a nerve in Indian River School District

DAGSBORO — Gov. John Carney’s pitch for $50 million in state funding to build a new public school in Wilmington struck a nerve with Mark Steele.

The superintendent of the Indian River District School, which on Feb. 13 will hold a third major capital referendum to address overcrowding from continuous enrollment growth, shared his feelings with the Indian River Board of Education this week.

Mark-Steele

“I can tell you in conversation with my colleagues, no superintendent saw this one coming … no idea that there was a thought process that there would be a school built, a public school built totally with state funds,” said Mr. Steele. “Now, you’ll have a Howard T. Ennis School. You’ll have the Consortium at Cape Henlopen, you’ll have some other special schools throughout the state that, yes, they are state funds.”

“However, this particular school would be an elementary school in Wilmington,” said Mr. Steele. “And I’ve got to be honest, and I think tonight is the right venue, to let people know how I feel about this. I believe that, No. 1, it sets a very bad precedent, because you’re going to have 18 other districts wanting to know why we don’t get the same thing, and why we are out banging our heads against concrete, to talk to people to try to support the referendum.”

Contained in Gov. Carney’s capital proposal is $184 million for school construction and renovations, including $20.7 million for Capital School District, $16.2 million for Indian River School District pending the results of a February referendum and $50 million to build the first new school in Wilmington in decades.

Mr. Steele is not alone. Several Republican lawmakers who represent the district expressed their concern with the proposal.
State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, called it “extremely unfair” for taxpayers throughout the state.

“I have serious concerns with this proposal. I think that announcing this proposal prior to the major cap referendum that Indian River is going to be doing is harmful to its chances of a passage,” he said. “I have been hearing from a lot of constituents, voicing concern and disgust that we are going to be doing this for the city of Wilmington when we have schools here in Georgetown and Millsboro that are having to bring in trailers to fit the students. I have very serious concerns about taking this path just for one school.”

State Rep. Ron Gray, R-Selbyville, and Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, agreed.

“The timing isn’t the greatest, with the referendum coming up in just a few weeks,” said Rep. Gray. “If you’re kind of on the fence about voting for it, some of the voters here in Indian River might say, ‘Well, why do we need to vote for this? The state is going to help out Wilmington. Shouldn’t they help out the Indian River School District?’”

Indian River School District seeks to win voter approval to raise the 40-percent local share of $58,437,700 to build a new Sussex Central High School to accommodate 2,200 students. The existing high school would be repurposed as a middle school, allowing the district to turn Millsboro Middle School into another elementary school.

With approval, the referendum will result in a maximum possible tax increase of $63.24 for the average district property owner, according to the district. This increase will be phased in over a three-year period.

IRSD’s enrollment was 11,171 as of Jan. 27, well above its Sept. 30 count in 2019, Mr. Steele reported at Monday’s board meeting.

Rep. Briggs King said, “It’s not carved in stone or anything, but I think it is particularly disturbing when we have the need for a new technical high school, Sussex Tech, we have overcrowding at Sussex Central High School and failed referendums … to come in and automatically say that we’re going to put $50 million for a new school. Not that it is not needed but how are you going to fund that? And where is the equity for those other districts that have very similar issues with needed schools and infrastructure needs? Many of these districts in Sussex County are suffering a variety of challenges.”

Gov. Carney’s $50 million proposal is for a new school to replace an existing school, and renovations at several other schools in the Christina district. It was included as part of his proposed budget, which also calls for funding for Indian River’s construction if the referenum is successful.

“There has been quite an effort over the last four or five years to see what can be done for Wilmington. I am excited about that, but I wish we could have the same amount of money to support Indian River, too,” said Rep. Gray. “If you are going to do it for Wilmington, you should do it for other schools as well.”

Rep. Briggs King said, “I understand how important things are in the north, particularly in Wilmington. But it’s a great concern when we must go to referendum to get a new school, and that the governor can just announce that he is going to find money for a new school in Wilmington, without them ever solving the issues that they need to. They still have the issues about the Christina district. You need to really fix that infrastructure issue with how things work before you simply build a new school.”

Indian River board member Dr. Donald Hattier strongly urged that the school board let its voice be heard in Dover and questioned supporting a resolution to make opposition clear to the governor.

“I think we probably need to do that as well as the other districts. I mean, I have nothing against them having a new school. From what I read they desperately need it as well,” said Dr. Hattier. “It’s going to set a very bad precedent and people are going to start saying, ‘Why are voting for a tax increase when the state is going to give it to us anyway at some point?”