Growth-driven Indian River referendum just over a week away

“If we did not have a need for space we wouldn’t be sitting here today,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

GEORGETOWN — With the vote just over one week away, the informational campaign continues in the Indian River School District for a growth-driven referendum that has spurred discussion, questions and concerns.

The two-pronged major capital improvement/current expense referendum Tuesday, Feb. 5 seeks voter approval to fund 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, plus operational funding for staff, curriculum, supplies, transportation and utility expenses for a high school and elementary school.

The crux of the major capital request is to alleviate overcrowding due to a substantial increase in the district’s total enrollment during the past eight years. IRSD’s current PreK-12 enrollment is 10,697 students, an increase of 1,826 students since 2011. Enrollment growth is projected to continue during the next six years and reach 12,473 students by 2024.

“If we did not have a need for space we wouldn’t be sitting here today,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele during a public presentation Thursday morning at Sussex Central High School.

“I’m not going to stand up here and plead, beg or do 100-percent convincing to you that you’ve got to support this. One thing I know about people, people have a variety of reasons for either supporting or not supporting things like this. And that’s fine. That is not for me to judge. My job today is simply to give you facts and let you judge it from there. Would like it to pass? Absolutely!”

Sussex Central High School’s current enrollment of 1,661 is well over the 1,500-student capacity, with projected enrollment of 1,940 in 2024. The district’s northern elementary schools have a current enrollment of 3,504, below the 3,812 capacity but enrollment projection for 2024 is 4,305.

The middle schools in the north, with current enrollment of 1,545, are below capacity (1,642) with 2024 projection of 2,066.

With plans to construct of a new 2,200-student Sussex Central High School on district-owned property at the current SCHS campus, the IRSD would renovate and repurpose two existing school buildings. Millsboro Middle School would move into the existing Sussex Central High School building, which would allow the existing Millsboro Middle School building to be converted into an elementary school.

Additionally, with referendum approval, the district will undertake a series of additional capital improvement projects geared to relieve overcrowding. Renovations in transforming the Sussex Central High School building into a middle school, and conversion of the current Millsboro Middle School building into an additional elementary school would utilize minor capital improvement funds, which would not require a property tax increase.

Attendance areas in Georgetown, Millsboro and Long Neck will also be redrawn to alleviate overcrowding.

This major cap/current expense referendum pitch comes after a $7.35 million current expense referendum passed in March 2017 in a record-smashing turnout after an initial referendum held Nov. 22 failed by 20 votes.

If approved, this referendum will result in a maximum possible tax increase of $87.55 per year for the “average” district property owner. This includes the 9-cent current expense tax increase, which would result in an “average” increase of $18.58.

The “average” assessment is $20,653, based on estimated market value of $199,000 to $225,000.

“A lot of the discussion is about the ‘average’ homeowner,” said Lou Ann Rieley, whose family operates a multi-generational farm in the Millsboro area. “But one thing that is left out of this is our farmers. These property taxes … in whatever form, hit farmers disproportionately hard.”

“They do,” said Mr. Steele.

“Right now, the poultry industry is in a horrible slump,” said Ms. Rieley. “Our taxes went up $600 the last referendum. A lot of farmers are saying they cannot afford this because we don’t fall in the ‘average.’ A lot of people want open spaces but the culmination of that, the whole net effect of all of this stuff is going to make it so farming is not a viable operation here and we are going to lose valuable open spaces.”

Lou Ann Rieley

“She (Ms. Rieley) is correct in what she is saying,” said Mr. Steele. “If you own the 30-, 40-acre farm, that is going to hit you harder than it does somebody that has a single-family dwelling. There is going to be that difference. Again, and I go back, we don’t like doing it, but it is our only avenue. That is why I tell people; wherever you are and wherever you fall, vote the way you know you have to vote, and do it that way.”

Total cost of the major capital project is $158.5 million. The state of Delaware would cover 60 percent, or $95.1 million, leaving the district’s 40-percent local share of $63,405,400.

“I think it is disingenuous to say and constantly point to the ‘state-funded’ portion because the state-funded portion is still taxpayer dollars,” said Ms. Rieley. “It’s just distributed out through the state.”

The debt service tax increase for the construction projects would be phased in over a four-year period and not reach the maximum of 35 cents per $100 of assessed value. Mr. Steele notes it will never actually reach the 35-cent maximum because of decreases in existing bonds. The tax increase will max out at 32 cents in year four. After FY 2023, debt service rate will decrease every year until bonds are retired.

“As you pay your bonds you see decreases in your amounts,” Mr. Steele explained.

The district says the plan up for vote Feb. 5 will save taxpayers more than $11 million when compared to the original 2016 major capital improvement proposal, which called for a new elementary and middle schools and renovation of the existing Sussex Central High School.

“There’s always a lot of information if you’re a Facebooker, you see a lot of people … this and that,” Mr. Steele said. “One of the things I want to make very clear are school finances — where we were two years ago and where we are today.”

In approximately two years the district through cost-saving measures on local tax dollars has restocked its reserves from about $3 million in 2017 to a projected $11 to $12 million sum through this year. Rule of thumb is a base minimum $6 million is needed to cover payroll and local expenses from July 1 into mid-October.

Mr. Steele said he is proud of where the district was financially and where it is now. He noted approximately $1.4 million in money saved by the district not filling administrative/central office positions for which the district was entitled through the Sept. 30 unit count.

The district also created a Community Budget Oversight Committee to oversee finances.

“We’ve made a lot of smart decisions, not cutting our business in what we do but at same time not over-spending a penny anywhere. That has been our mantra for two years. Do you need it, or do you want it?” said Mr. Steele. “When I say we trimmed the fat, we trimmed the fat.”

Financial stability has been achieved as the district each of the past two years “gave back” $2 million as part of Gov. Carney’s $26 million cut in state education funding.

Mr. Steele noted that while there is continued enrollment growth throughout the district it differs from north to south.

In southern end, which includes Selbyville and coastal areas, it’s more of an influx of senior citizens. It’s more of a family affair in the northern Georgetown/Millsboro areas.

“Our school district has about 35 to 40 percent senior citizens of our population,” said Mr. Steele. “What we’re seeing the northern end is a lot of families moving in. When you bring families, you bring kids. You have rate of growth different in northern.”

“I’ve always had the impression at least in the last 10 years that this whole area mostly senior citizens are moving down here,” said Long Neck resident Gary Mazur, among the two dozen residents who attended the meeting. “That is why I having trouble trying to figure out why we are getting all of these kids. I guess it’s because senior citizens are coming down here, but senior citizens need help from a younger generation, who have children that go to the schools down here.”

More development and potential enrollment growth is in the long-range forecast. In the northern portion of the district, Millsboro, with Plantation Lakes and other developments, and the town of Georgetown are anticipating noticeable growth, Mr. Steele said.
“There are flip sides. Some people don’t like all of the growth. But there are advantages,” said Mr. Steele.

If the referendum passes, expectation is the new high school, classroom additions and school conversions would be completed for the 2024-25 year.

In the meantime, the district will wrestle with enrollment growth and capacity issues. The district will likely have to utilize portable classrooms to relieve overcrowding beginning in the 2019-20 school year. Local funds must be used to lease the classrooms, which are costly and could create safety and security concerns due to their placement outside of the main school building.

Portables could be utilized at SCHS and at Georgetown Middle School, which Mr. Steele said he has been informed is in need of five to six classrooms. Georgetown Mayor Bill West said the town would work with the school district if and when the need for portable classrooms arises.

The district may even explore the feasibility of a pole building option, possibly at SCHS, to address space needs. Portables go away, Mr. Steel noted, but a pole-type structure would be permanent and could be utilized in the future.

IRSD, which has lowered the tax rate four of the last five years, currently has the lowest school tax ($3.067) among districts in Sussex County. Cape Henlopen is second-lowest at $3.6774. Tops is Milford, $4.9145.

On tax rates, Mr. Steele explained that in the Indian River district one penny of tax generates $164,000. In comparison, in the Woodbridge district for example, one penny may be about $24,000, because assessed rates are lower in Woodbridge, Mr. Steele said.

With referendum passage, IRSD’s overall tax rate would increase from $3.067 to $3.507, which would still be the lowest in the county.

“We have worked hard in two years to get where we are folks. The last thing I am going to see it do is backslide; I’m not going to see that happen,” said Mr. Steele. “So, whatever we decide to do in terms of building, in terms of programs, we always take a long look at it and see every possible solution and try to pick the most solutions where we can get the best bang for our buck.”

“We don’t want to be tax hounds. There is a big difference between wants and needs,” said Mr. Steele. “You’re not going to hurt my feeling either way you go because I know people are in different stages. I will tell you the need is here.”

There are four property tax assistance options for those who qualify:

• Exemption for disabled;

• Exemption for residents over 65;

• State senior citizen school property tax credit; and

• Sussex County property tax subsidy.

For applications and additional information, contact the Sussex County Treasury at 855-7760.

Several residents voiced concern about Delaware’s political makeup, amid recent word out of Dover of more possible taxation at the state level.

Senate Bill 50, legislation sponsored by Democrats Harris McDowell and Edward Osienski that would support Delaware Technical Community College, passed out of committee Jan. 23.

“It does propose a statewide property tax for DTCC,” said State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown.

“I do want to point out that in the past the state property tax idea has not passed because there were enough Republican votes to stop those kinds of tax increases, and now there is not,” said Ms. Rieley. “So, the Democrat-controlled legislature can put anything they want in place. We are not the majority.”

In the event of inclement weather, the referendum will be rescheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 19. Voting is from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Voting eligibility/polling places

District residents who are U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age are eligible to vote at the following local polling places: East Millsboro Elementary School, Georgetown Elementary School, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary School, Lord Baltimore Elementary School and Selbyville Middle School.

Information/public presentations

Remaining public presentations by the district include: Wednesday, Jan. 30, at Lord Baltimore Elementary School, 6 p.m.; and Facebook Live/YouTube community/staff presentations Thursday, Jan. 31, and Monday, Feb. 4, both at 7 p.m.

For more information on the referendum, visit www.irsd.net or call the IRSD’s Referendum Hotline at 436-1079.

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