Indian River board opts for major cap only in follow-up referendum

Mark-Steele

GEORGETOWN — In the second and final round, the Indian River School District is asking for less.

Grappling with serious overcrowding, the IRSD is hoping to rebound from an early February defeat with a one-part referendum this spring seeking a new high school and classroom additions at two other schools — but no follow-up request for a current expense tax increase.

After lengthy discussion, the board of education Feb. 25 voted 7-1 to hold a second space-driven referendum — possibly in late April or early May — that seeks voter approval to fund a new Sussex Central High School, an eight-classroom addition at Indian River High School and four additional classrooms at Selbyville Middle School.

The school board’s decision came 20 days after voters rejected both the major capital improvement request (3,860 to 3,202) and a proposal for a 9-cent current expense tax hike (3,836 to 3,123) for operational funding for staff, curriculum, supplies, transportation and utility expenses for a high school and elementary school.

The IRSD is dealing with overcrowding and space issues in many schools and to some it is at crisis stage. The district’s enrollment as of Feb. 22 was 10,885, nearly 200 more students from the Sept. 30, 2018 enrollment count of 10,697, IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele reported at the board meeting.

“There are going to be some hard decisions that we are going to have to make,” said Mr. Steele, who informed the board that Sussex 0Central High School, already well over 1,500 capacity by several hundred students will need additional classroom space next September. “We have to have eight additional classrooms. The following two years after that we are going to need eight more classrooms. There is just no way around that.”

“We are still getting students coming in. I know last week North Georgetown received quite a few new students,” said Mr. Steele. “We are continuing to grow, and that capacity issue is only going to get worse.”

Leased portable classroom units are a solution, but are expensive and temporary, Mr. Steele said. “The bad thing about portables is you are renting them. The amount of money we are going to put out in renting portable units is going to be a huge number,” he said.

Each two-classroom unit runs about $130,000, possibly more, over a five-year lease.

A pole building-type permanent structure could be an alternative option.

“We cannot continue status quo where we are today in the next few years,” said Mr. Steele.

Board members Charles Bireley, Derek Cathell, Dr. Donald Hattier, Jim Hudson, Gerald Peden, Dr. Heather Statler and Leolga Wright supported the one-question referendum for the new high school and classroom additions. Board members Rodney Layfield and W. Scott Collins were not at the meeting.

Donald Hattier

“After looking at how many temporary buildings we are going to need and how they are spread out and how that affects our security, I don’t think we have much of a choice but to go ahead and try again,” said Dr. Hattier. “The longer we delay the worse the problem becomes. I think we have to do it.”

“I personally feel that we need to do something,” said Mr. Bireley, who favored dropping the current expense increase request. “They already said ‘no.’”

Board member James Fritz supported a follow-up referendum with both initial requests – major capital and current expense – coupled with efforts to encourage more voters to exercise their voting right. He noted a current expense referendum approved in March 2017 requesting $7.35 million drew more than 12,000 voters, while the Feb. 5 referendum that entailed nearly $65 million in local tax dollars drew about 7,000.

“I don’t want to come back in two years for a referendum for current expense,” said Mr. Fritz. “When you look at the votes … basically people voted ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for both. So, dropping off Question 2, I don’t think enhances the prospects of passing Question 1 any better because the biggest opponents that you have in the community, they don’t like demographic makeup of the schools; who is paying the tax dollars?”

James Fritz

“I think with better support … we could get the numbers that we need and understanding how building just one building can affect all of the other buildings,” said Mr. Fritz.

The district’s plan is to build a new 2,200-student Sussex Central High School and convert existing SCHS into a middle school that would enable Millsboro Middle School to be utilized as another elementary school.

Per the certificate of necessity approved by the state Department of Education, the state of Delaware would cover 60 percent of that $158.1 million major capital project. The district’s 40-percent local share would be $63,405,400.

For the major capital improvement proposal, the maximum debt service increase for the “average” property assessment would be $68.96 in fiscal year 2023 and decrease every year thereafter, said Mr. Steele.

The 9-cent current expense tax increase would have generated $1.4 million. The additional “average” $18.59 for current expense would have been an annual increase.

The district’s “average” assessment is $20,653, based on estimated market value of $199,000 to $225,000. Owners of businesses and larger properties, such as farms, that have much higher assessments would pay substantially more.

As the district’s financial status has improved the past two years and with assessment growth spurred by development expected to continue, Mr. Steele said the district could conceivably put money aside annually, perhaps enough to cover operational costs sought in the current expense request.

“As long as we continue to bring in tax revenue, if we were to be very careful and put away $250,000 or $300,000 off to side, and do that for four years, we could possibly get this in without having to do the 9-cent current expense,” said Mr. Steele.

Gerald Peden

“We looked at the budget on what we could cut back … and tighten our belts,” said Mr. Peden. “I firmly believe it’s going to be tight, but we can make it without that.”

“Especially, if our assessments keep growing the way they have the last couple of years,” said IRSD Director of Business Jan Steele.
Ms. Wright supported the major capital only request after some initial reservations.

“My concern is … this is what we needed. Now, if we go back, we’ll only push for Question 1, we will leave Question 2 out. To me that gives the impression that maybe we didn’t need that in the very beginning. So, are we being forthright with our finances?” said Ms. Wright. “My second thing … you say that in a couple years we would be right back for a current expense. That would put us in a situation of where we had buildings, but we wouldn’t have funds for people, so would it serve its purpose?”

“I’d rather see us go back for that one, knowing that we have something to fall back on for the next four years,” Ms. Wright said. “Then, if it comes to the point that we could go back to the public and say, ‘Look, we didn’t do a current expense in 2019 or 2020.’”

Mr. Peden said the issue forces the district to consider wants and needs. “We want operational costs but what do we need? We need space,” he said. “Whether people are for or against the referendums, they can’t argue the numbers. We need the space. If that is all we ask for I think there is going to be a lot more sentiment.”

Leolga Wright

Mr. Fritz said, “The reality is that the situation isn’t going to get any better. It’s going to get worse. The space isn’t going to get any better. And as Mr. Steele says, there is going to be a lot of tough decisions and there is going to be a lot of heartache over the next few years if we don’t pass a referendum.”

Mr. Steele made note that the Feb. 5 referendum verdict marked the “second-worse referendum defeat we’ve actually gone through. We’re going to have to do a lot of work, to go back with a second referendum.”

“We really don’t control our own destiny,” he said. “We are going to have to rely on the taxpayers that they would see our need.”

The district must have a referendum approved by June 30. After that, the district’s approved Certificate of Necessity expires. School districts are limited to two referendum attempts on the same request.

Heather Statler

Dr. Statler suggested the board and district take a different route.

“I think it is very important no matter where when go … we need to do a lot of work with our community partners and try to find out from people the root of the ‘no’ vote,” Dr. Statler said. “I think we really need to do a better job of getting out there and understanding what their concerns are and why they did vote ‘no.’ We did a nice job with sort of making the presentation about the space, but we know it goes beyond the just issue of space.”

Mr. Peden said, “Listening to people in my area – whether we agree or not – the consensus out there was that the board is wasteful with money, and we need to tighten our belts. I think Question 2, they thought we didn’t need that so that brought down the entire referendum.”

Dr. Hattier agreed. “The current expense part may have brought out some other people who would vote against it. I say we just go with one question and leave it at that.”

Attendance zone realignment has been mentioned.

“We’ve talked about the structure of our district a lot,” said Mr. Steele. “We have on one end of the district a lot of senior citizens, and on the other we tend to have more families. And that is where our growth and our capacity is needed. We have a couple buildings in south that have available capacity. It is not beyond the realm to say, ‘Do we need to change lines anywhere? That may be something we have to look at.”

“We’re willing to do whatever the board wants us to do,” said Mr. Steele.

IRSD spokesman David Maull said paperwork with requests for potential referendum dates were sent Wednesday to the Sussex County Department of Elections. Factoring in this equation are May 14 school board elections, which are conducted by the Department of Elections.

“We have submitted some dates to the Department of Elections and we’re just waiting to hear from them,” said Mr. Maull.

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