CR officials make push for property tax hike

Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of the property tax increase in the fifth paragraph. District taxpayers will see an increase of 57 cents per $100 of assessed property value after five years.

DOVER — As residents in the Caesar Rodney School District prepare to celebrate its 100th birthday, they will also be considering the district’s future.

As the district continues to grow and federal and state funds drop off, officials say its time for the referendum.

“We believe there is a sincere need and we hope our community recognizes that and supports us,” Superintendent Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald said.

On Oct. 17, voters will be asked to approve a tax increase to address operating expenses and capital improvements in the district. If approved, the district’s tax rate would increase 57 cents per $100 of assessed property value over five years.

As part of the referendum, district officials hope to make $86.9 million in capital improvements to upgrade aging buildings and increase capacity.

If the referendum passes, the district hopes to build a two-story, 10-classroom addition at the Caesar Rodney High School, (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

If the referendum passes, the district hopes to build a two-story, 10-classroom addition at the Caesar Rodney High School, (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

With the capital improvement money, the district can construct a new elementary school, build additions at Caesar Rodney High School and McIlvaine Early Childhood Center, and update seven other schools.

The district has grown by 1,350 students — the size of a typical high school — since 2000.

“Our student population is going to continue to grow and we want to grow with them,” Dr. Fitzgerald said.

And since 2008, Caesar Rodney has lost an average of about $1.2 million in state and federal funds each year.

“$1.2 million is a lot to do without if you’re used to having that much money, so you have to do something,” Dr. Puzzo said.

To make it work, administration have frozen building and operational budgets, pursued grant opportunities, cut staff and programming. They avoided making cuts in the classroom, said Dr. Ada Carter Puzzo, district director of business and finance.

Voters passed the district’s last referendum in 2007 to make renovations and additions to McIlvaine and Brown, Frear and Simpson elementary schools.

A strategic planning committee first called attention to the district’s needs in 2008, Dr. Fitzgerald said. At the time, the concern was put on hold to focus on Race to the Top.

Then, in 2013, a resource development committee made recommendations again to expand the schools and increase the operating budget.

In May 2014, the Caesar Rodney school board voted to request a certificate of necessity from the state’s Department of Education — the first step to begin construction.

The document certifies that a construction project is necessary and sets up the scope and cost limits for that project.

It also authorizes the district to hold a referendum to raise the district’s portion of the cost.

The school board received the certificate, Dr. Fitzgerald said, and voted unanimously in August to hold a referendum. The certificate of necessity expires Oct. 30.

“It was a thoughtful, long process to get us to this point,” he said.

Building needs

The state share for the construction projects is 68 percent — the district would cover 32 percent of the expenses, or about $27.8 million.

The new elementary school is planned for land the district owns at Briarbush and Banning roads in Magnolia, Dr. Fitzgerald said, an area that he predicted will continue to grow.

The new school would help relieve pressure on the rest of the elementary schools — now almost all at capacity — especially Frear and Star Hill.

It also would offer flexibility to the middle schools.

“Right now, we have no flexibility,” Dr. Fitzgerald said.

“That’s that major difference.”

In the certificate, the Department of Education approved everything the district requested, including additions to Caesar Rodney High School, McIlvaine and Postlethwait and Fifer middle schools.

The school board only chose to ask for additions to McIlvaine and the high school, Dr. Fitzgerald said.

At the high school, district officials hope to build a two-story, 10-classroom addition at the school, as well as a Freshman Academy on the school grounds.

The high school, which was built for 1,800 students, now enrolls more than 2,000 students.

There are 15 “floating” teachers who don’t have classroom space at Caesar Rodney, Dr. Fitzgerald said.

“It’s called creative scheduling,” he said.

A four-classroom addition is planned at McIlvaine. The school is also over capacity, Dr. Fitzgerald said.

Fred Fifer III Middle School would be in line for security upgrades and energy-efficient lighting. It also would get a new roof. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Fred Fifer III Middle School would be in line for security upgrades and energy-efficient lighting. It also would get a new roof. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

When it first opened, district officials penciled in plans to add the four classrooms. They didn’t have the funds at the time, but they made sure that the infrastructure was in place so that the work could be done at a minimal cost.

The rest of the planned construction is “critical” to maintain aging buildings, Dr. Fitzgerald said.

Along with the additions, crews would complete security upgrades and install energy-efficient lighting at McIlvaine, Caesar Rodney High, Postlethwait and Fifer middle schools, and Stokes, Star Hill, Simpson, Brown and Frear elementary schools.

Dr. Fitzgerald said the hope is to “raise the standard across the board” for security at all the buildings.
Caesar Rodney High and Fifer Middle schools would receive new roofs.

The referendum would also include interior finishes, heating and air conditioning upgrades and accessibility improvements at Caesar Rodney, Postlethwait, Fifer and Stokes.

At the high school, workers would also replace the metal panels on the exterior envelope and upgrade the outdoor athletic facilities.

Dr. Fitzgerald said after the referendum passes, Caesar Rodney would work with the state to prioritize projects and make plans.

“I don’t really look at these projects to be completely finished for three to five years,” he said.

The improvements would leave the district in good shape for another five to 10 years, Dr. Fitzgerald said.

Operating expenses

The additional operating funds would help make up for cuts in federal and state revenues, officials said.
Among other things, the money would provide students with up-to-date technology and more science, technology, engineering and math opportunities.

If it passes, the referendum would also help save the freshman Success Academy and maintain the Ninth Grade Academy.

Dr. Fitzgerald said the two programs help students transition to high school and greatly improved the district’s retention rate.

Student safety initiatives, including school resource officers, will also be supported.

The money would maintain arts and athletic programs; support curriculum and professional development; and grow the language immersion program.

Costs

The district’s current expense rate — for school operations — is the lowest in the state at $0.54 per $100 of assessed property value, Dr. Puzzo said.

Caesar Rodney School District collects only $604 for every student in local current expense revenue. Nearby, she said, Capital collects $1,761 per student and Smyrna collects $1,352.

If the referendum passes, the current expense increase would be $0.33 per $100 of assessed value in fiscal year 2017.

It would increase by $0.02 every year for the next four years to reach $0.41.

The debt service increase for capital improvements would be an estimated $0.06 in fiscal year 2017.

It would rise to $0.16 after five years, when it would start to drop again.

The total monthly increase for someone with a house valued at $48,000, for instance, would be about $16 the first year and go up to about $24 after five years.

A house valued at $48,000 would have a market value of about $200,000, Dr. Puzzo said.

If the referendum passes, Caesar Rodney still would have the second lowest current expense rate in the state in fiscal year 2017.

By fiscal year 2021, when the tax increase is highest, it would be the fourth lowest in the state.

Any resident of the district age 18 and up can vote in the referendum from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 17.

On the same day, the school district will be celebrating Rider Pride Day.

Polling places are Simpson, Frear and Welch elementary schools, Fifer Middle School and McIlvaine.

An information meeting will be held at Brown Elementary School from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday.

For more information, visit www.crk12.org/referendum.

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