Downstate school districts push need for more space

DOVER — Major capital improvement referendums loom in the coming months in two downstate public school districts, proposals geared mainly toward addressing space needs spurred by increased enrollment.

Indian River School District officials have mapped out the public campaign they said they hope will land voter approval in a major capital improvement/current expense referendum slated for early February. IRSD has received from the state the Certificate of Necessity approval for a new, large high school and classroom additions at two other schools. The projected cost is about $158 million, 40 percent being local dollars.

In early April, the Capital District will hold a $128 million major capital referendum to build two new middle schools.

Last year, voters in the Cape Henlopen School District approved a $55.5 million referendum to expand the existing Cape Henlopen High School and build a new middle school to address enrollment growth.

The Cape Henlopen referendum was the only major capital referendum held in the state in 2018, according to Delaware Department of Education spokeswoman Alison May.

Delaware’s DOE did not grant certificate of necessity requests from four districts: Appoquinimink, Brandywine, Smyrna and New Castle County Vo-Tech, she said, and the approval granted for Capital did not meet that district’s full request.

In addition to Indian River and Capital’s two major capital improvement referendums, Woodbridge School District plans to hold a current expense referendum sometime in March 2019.

Meanwhile, in the Caesar Rodney School District, work and plans continue stemming from approval of an $86.9 million referendum in 2015.

Indian River School District

The Feb. 5 referendum seeks funding for the construction of a new Sussex Central High School, an eight-classroom addition at Indian River High School and a four-classroom addition at Selbyville Middle School.

In addition to the major capital expense request, voter support is sought to approve funding through a 9-cent current expense tax increase for local salary for addition staff, furniture, supplies, maintenance, transportation and utility expenses for a high school and elementary school.

Voting booth ballots are two-pronged.

“On advice of counsel we have worded the referendum – Question 1 and Question 2 – in a way that I think is going to be much easier to understand for voters this time around compared to what we have done in the past,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele.

District officials say the major capital improvement proposal is needed to alleviate overcrowding across the district through the construction of only one new school instead of several.

In addition to the construction of a new Sussex Central High School, the district plans to renovate and repurpose two existing school buildings. This will allow Millsboro Middle School to move into the existing Sussex Central High School building and allow the existing Millsboro Middle School to be converted into an elementary school.

This plan, Mr. Steele has stated, will save taxpayers more than $11 million when compared to the original 2016 major capital improvement proposal, which would have built new elementary and middle schools and renovated the existing Sussex Central High School.

The proposed new high school will be built on land already owned by the school district, creating savings to taxpayers.

Additional classroom space is needed to address a large increase in the district’s total enrollment during the past eight years. IRSD’s current enrollment is 10,697 students in grades PreK-12 — an increase of 1,826 students since 2011. That growth, district officials said, has put a strain on classroom space at several school buildings, the majority of which are currently at or over capacity.

Enrollment growth is projected to continue during the next six years and reach 12,473 students by 2024.

Total projected cost of the new 2,200-student high school and classroom addition projects is just over $158 million. Based on the 60/40 state/local funding ratio, the IRSD taxpayer burden would be approximately $63.4 million.

The 9-cent current expense tax increase would generate $1.4 million the district says it will need for operational expenses.

Robert Maloney, a frequent speaker during public commentary at IRSD board meetings, questioned the need for the current expense tax increase several years before new schools, with referendum passage, would open.

“Why are we running a Question B?” said Mr. Maloney. “In case the public back here doesn’t understand what it is, it is estimated cost for teachers, transportation, etc., etc., etc., for future down the years, which we really don’t need to worry about for at least four years until that building is built. Currently, Mr. Steele, you are running at least $2 million profit from your last referendum increase. You only need in your estimation $1.4 million. There is no need for that Question B on the referendum.”

Combined, the major capital improvement and current expense initiatives will result in a maximum increase of $87.55 on the “average” district property owner’s tax bill. The maximum debt service increase for the construction projects would be $68.96 in FY 2023 and decrease every year thereafter, said Mr. Steele.

The additional $18.59 for current expense would be an annual increase.

In the interim, IRSD officials say the district will likely have to lease portable classrooms to relieve overcrowding beginning in the 2019-20 school year. Portable classrooms are costly and could create safety and security concerns due to their placement outside of the main school building, according to the district.

The informational campaign includes seven PTOs (Parent Teacher Organization) meetings, four districtwide public presentations and several Facebook Live/YouTube staff and community presentations.

“We will utilize a combination of Facebook Live and YouTube Live,” said Mr. Steele. “We have structured this so that on the Thursday that we return from Christmas break, we will be doing a You Tube Live with our entire staff to review the referendum components. We also have three other community staff nights scheduled – Jan. 17, Jan. 31 and the night before the actual referendum where we hold those online sessions.”

The district also plans to visit various groups and organizations for presentations.

“We plan on having a rather full month of doing two, sometimes three presentations per day, and try to make sure we reach every group that we went through during the last referendum,” said Mr. Steele.

The maximum property tax increase needed to fund the district’s 40-percent local share ($63,405,400) of the construction projects is 35 cents per $100 of assessed value. The remaining 60 percent ($95,108,565) will be funded by the state of Delaware.

The debt service tax increase for the construction projects will be phased in over a four-year period and not reach the maximum 35 cents until fiscal year 2023. After FY2023, the debt service rate will decrease every year until the construction bonds are retired.

IRSD’s last referendum in early March 2017 drew a record voter turnout that resulted in the approval of the school district’s follow-up $7.35 million current expense referendum pitch that supported enrollment growth, school safety and student services.

The referendum passed by a 7,095-to-5,394 margin less than three months after the first pitch was defeated by 20 votes.

As part of its outreach campaign, the IRSD will host two public meetings directed toward its residents who are senior citizens during the month of January: Jan. 23, at 10 a.m. at Indian River High School, and Jan. 24 at 10 a.m. at Sussex Central High School. Both meetings will be held in the school auditorium.

At these meetings, district staff will explain the district’s upcoming referendum and highlight the various tax assistance programs, including the state and county property tax relief programs available to senior citizens. Those in attendance will have the opportunity to ask questions.

Voting will take place on Feb. 5, from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. District residents who are U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age are eligible to vote at the following local polling locations: East Millsboro Elementary School, Georgetown Elementary School, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary School, Lord Baltimore Elementary School and Selbyville Middle School.

Voter registration is not required, but residents must provide proof of identification or residency at each polling place.

Absentee ballots are available by mail until noon on Feb. 1 and in person until noon on Feb. 4. Affidavits are available at all district schools. For more information, contact the Department of Elections at 856-5367.

If inclement weather, the referendum will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 19.

Capital School District plans

Capital School District plans to construct two middle schools next to each other in the former Dover High campus area at Pat Lynn Drive off Walker Road.

Administration said they believes that a single building for 1,600 students in grades six through eight is too much in one place, hence the plan for two facilities. This proposal would allow the district to economize use of athletic fields, a kitchen and auditorium for two schools to share, among other benefits.

The capital budget for the additions is projected to require $66,514,000 in state money, $61,803,000 local.

With referendum passage, planning for programming would begin immediately with a target opening date in 2023.

Woodbridge School District

Woodbridge School District residents on a March date to be determined will be asked to approve a current expense referendum to put the brakes on recent deficit spending and help the school district keep the lights on.

“The issue we have been having … is we have deficit spending the last couple of years. What that means is we have been dipping into our reserves,” said Woodbridge Superintendent Heath Chasanov. “This past year we needed to dip into reserves by $400,000.”

The Woodbridge board of education approved the referendum proposal by 5-0 vote at its Dec. 20 meeting.

If approved, the March 12 referendum would generate approximately $950,000. Because the Woodbridge district encompasses portions of Sussex and Kent counties, passage would increase the current expense tax rate in Sussex County by .655 cents and by .271 cents in Kent County per $100 of assessed value. Presently, the district’s current expense rates for FY2018 are $1.724 per $100 of assessed value for Sussex County and $0.713 for Kent County.

The average/median household in both counties would see an annual increase between a $70 and $75, said Mr. Chasanov.

Allocation breakdown of the approximate $950,000 includes $400,000 to end deficit spending, plus funding earmarked for cover transportation, utility and school security.

“Since the last time we had a referendum we’ve had some new costs. Since then, the state switched the transportation formula, from 100 percent to 90/10 (state/local ratio). Our 10 percent is around $200,000. That is an expense that we get no additional revenue for, but it has been an expense for several years now,” said Mr. Chasanov. “When we built the new high school, we did not ask for more current expense, but now we have a fourth building that we have to heat and that we have to turn the lights on. That is about another $250,000. When we decided to build a new high school, we knew eventually the utility line would get to the point where we needed to do this.”

“And then, unfortunately because of everything that is going on around our country we have incurred about $100,000 in security costs annually with our School Resource Officer program, either with DSP (Delaware State Police) or with Bridgeville Police Department,” said Mr. Chasanov.

Despite ongoing cost-cutting measures implemented districtwide, current expense has been a topic of discussion for some time.

“These are expenses that have occurred. I need the revenue to match up with these programs. Some of these shift costs are from the state, some of them are bore by our own doing,” said Mr. Chasanov. “We have been seeing this coming the last couple of years. This isn’t new. It has been talked about. When I do my budget presentations, we talk about it. It just finally got to the point where it’s like, ‘Look, we’ve got to do this. We have to have this.’”

Over the last several years the budgets that we’ve had the ability to cut we have cut. For instance, since FY2013 building budgets are down just under 15 percent, the technology budget is down 57 percent, maintenance budget is down 21 percent, the athletic budget is down 16 percent and the instructional replacement budget is down 75 percent. So, we have made cuts in places we can. But you can’t cut the utility bill. There are certain places that are fixed,” said Mr. Chasanov. “The key from a revenue standpoint is equalization. It is our No. 1 state fund that we get. Because it is tied to teacher units it has grown at relatively the same rate. But our problem is our current expense; our property tax hasn’t gone up at that same rate over that time. That’s why we are lagging.”

The last Woodbridge referendum was for current expense in FY 2006. It covered air conditioning units in the district’s two older “Pierre du Pont” buildings — the former Woodbridge High School (now Woodbridge Middle School) in Bridgeville and the PreK-2 Woodbridge Early Childhood Education Center in Greenwood.

The district plans to have open discussion at upcoming school board meetings as well as yet-to-be determined meetings.

“We certainly will be talking about it the two scheduled board meetings. There will be an agenda that night for folks who want to come and ask questions,” Mr. Chasanov said. “We will be meeting with a number of groups over the next two months. We have not set dates, but we will.”

Anyone wanting to know precisely how the current expense increase will impact their taxes may contact

Mr. Chasanov at the district office (337-7990) or email him at Heath.Chasanov@wsd.k12.de.us.

Caesar Rodney work ongoing

In the Caesar Rodney School District, projects continue stemming from 2015 referendum passage geared to increase capacity, improve learning spaces, address aging buildings and infrastructure and improve athletic facilities.

Projects include classroom additions at J. Ralph McIlvaine Elementary School, which have been completed, roofing work at two schools, a ninth grade academy at the high school and a new elementary school.

Targeted completion of all their referendum projects is by the start of the 2020 school year.

IR meetings set

The Indian River School District will hold the following district-wide public presentations to explain its referendum plans. They will be held on the following dates:

Monday, Jan. 7, Sussex Central High School, 6 p.m.

Wednesday, Jan. 16, Georgetown Middle School, 6 p.m.

Wednesday, Jan. 23, Indian River High School, 6 p.m.

Wednesday, Jan. 30, Lord Baltimore Elementary School, 6 p.m.

Facebook Live/YouTube presentations

Thursday, Jan. 17, Community/Staff, 7 p.m.

Thursday, Jan. 31, Community/Staff, 7 p.m.

Monday, Feb. 4, Community/Staff, 7 p.m.

For more information about the referendum, contact Indian River’s Referendum Hotline at 436-1079 or visit the district’s special referendum web site at irsd.net/referendum.

Voting will be open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Feb. 5. District residents who are U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age are eligible to vote at the following local polling locations: East Millsboro Elementary School, Georgetown Elementary School, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary School, Lord Baltimore Elementary School and Selbyville Middle School.

Voter registration is not required, but residents must provide proof of identification or residency at each polling place.

Absentee ballots are available by mail until noon on Feb. 1 and in person until noon on Feb. 4. Affidavits are available at all district schools. For information, contact the Department of Elections at 856-5367. In the event of inclement weather, the referendum will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 19.

 

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