Indian River School District making another push for tax hike

SELBYVILLE — Amid uncertainty and Delaware’s cloudy financial status and state funding for education, Indian River School District is delivering a change of pace in its second current expense referendum pitch.

Like the referendum which went down to narrow defeat Nov. 22, the March 2 vote seeks voters’ support for a tax increase of 49 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

That increase would generate $7.35 million more in local funding to help pay for school safety programs, measures related to enrollment growth and student services and support including technology, textbooks, student organizations and transportation, officials said.

According to the district, the additional impact to the average taxpayer would be $95.41 more per year with referendum passage.

IRSD property rates are calculated at $100 per assessed value based on 1974 assessments.

“The district’s unprecedented growth rate during the past six years has made it impossible for revenues to keep up with the needs of our students,” IRSD Superintendent Susan Bunting said.

(Gov.-elect John Carney announced Friday that Dr. Bunting was his pick to lead the state’s Department of Education.)

“In 2016-2017, our total enrollment increased to 10,467 students, which is an increase of nearly 300 students from last year. Since 2010, our enrollment has grown an average of 3 to 4 percent every year, thus creating a need for additional teachers and paraprofessionals, classroom supplies and materials, technology, textbooks and school safety initiatives. Growth is expected to continue into the future with district enrollment projected to be at or near 12,000 by 2022.”

The district’s board of education at a special meeting Dec. 14 voted 8-2 to approve the referendum proposal. Board members Leolga Wright and Dr. Heather Statler were opposed.

While the overall increase remains the same, 49 cents, categorical pots have shuffled for the upcoming referendum. The proposed breakdown: 33 cents ($4,950,000) earmarked for student enrollment growth; 8 cents ($1.2 million) for school safety and 8 cents ($1.2 million) for student services and support, which could also encompass transportation.

The November referendum earmarked 33 cents for student enrollment growth, 10 cents for school safety, 3 cents for technology, 2 cents for textbooks, and 1 cent for student organizations.

Indian River’s referendum request is impacted by the state’s gloomy financial forecast. The Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council’s December forecast projected a $350 million shortfall for fiscal year 2017-18.

According to IRSD Assistant Superintendent Mark Steele, the district and ultimately board of education opted to revise the categorical spending based on speculation that the state is looking to trim about $15 million from education.

“That includes the Department of Education and all of the school districts,” said Mr. Steele. “We can’t give an exact amount. There has been rumor that they (state) are going to increase our transportation costs 10 percent. For us, that’s about $600,000.”

There is talk at the state level about other cuts, including positions, Mr. Steele said.

“Again, this is just what we are hearing. There is a pretty good possibility that what the state cuts, they could be $800,000 or $900,000,” Mr. Steele said.

Thus, two cents from school security was moved into Student Services and Support.

Mr. Steele noted Indian River’s sprawling district encompasses 364 square miles, necessitating 160 to 170 buses. “When you increase transportation costs for school districts, our district is hit the hardest of anybody in the state,” said Mr. Steele. “Increasing enrollment means every year you have to add routes. Because we are such a big area, transportation is just a high-cost item for us.”

Indian River has experienced unprecedented student enrollment growth. Enrollment for 2015-16 exceeded 10,000 students for the first time in district history.

Enrollment for the 2016-17 year is 10,467 as of the Sept. 30 count, up nearly 300 students from the previous year.

Based on current trends, Indian River’s projected enrollment for 2020 is 11,826.

“This growth has put a strain on district budgets and made it difficult to meet the educational needs of our students,” said Dr. Bunting. “We are committed to providing the best possible instructional services to our students and hope residents will be supportive of the March 2 referendum, which will strongly influence our schools’ future.”

The district’s referendum request on Nov. 22 fell short by a mere 20 votes — 3,341 to 3,321. That referendum was held five days after the State of Delaware Office of Auditor of Accounts released its report on the Indian River district, citing the district for lack of oversight and placing blind faith in its then-chief financial officer Patrick Miller, who was placed on leave in April and subsequently retired.

Passage of the 49-cent increase would raise the district’s overall tax rate from 2.578 to 3.068, which would rank as the lowest among public school districts in Sussex County.

IRSD currently employs approximately 1,500 people, making it one of Sussex County’s largest employers.

Without referendum passage, district officials claim the district could face sizeable reduction in staff, possibly 10 percent or about 150 jobs. That would include all groups, including custodians, secretaries, administrators, paraprofessionals, teachers and security.

J.R. Emanuele, president of Indian River Education Association, at the Dec. 19 school board meeting said the upcoming referendum now has the union’s full backing.

Mr. Emanuele said some members weren’t supportive of the November referendum. Since then he said there has been a change of heart in light of an email from Dr. Bunting, whose apologetic correspondence itemized measures and fiscal management procedures and practices already in place or in the process of being implemented.

In her email, sent several days after the referendum defeat, Dr. Bunting stated, “I am deeply sorry that we have had to endure the disappointment and disillusionment related to current audit findings. Although I expected a trusted, former IRSD employee to properly manage the district’s finances, I am ultimately responsible for all employees’ actions. Hence, I sincerely apologize for whatever was done.  The auditor has forwarded his report to the Attorney General, who is continuing the investigation of the individual’s actions. The Attorney General alone has the authority to determine whether charges will be filed. “

“What has become clear is that greater oversight is necessary,” Dr. Bunting said in the email. “Therefore, the district has hired an experienced, well-reputed director of business, and we have already put a number of fiscal management changes into practice.”

Mr. Emanuele said, “I was contacted several times and people’s thoughts were changing because of an email that went out from Dr. Bunting. That email was greatly appreciated and well-received by every person that I talked to. It explained the changes that were being made, the implementation of more oversight that was happening. I honestly feel that this was a step that was needed to begin to move people in the direction supporting the next referendum.

“If IREA can help distribute the information, get the information out, we’re there to help support the next referendum. We’re in the trenches every day with these kids,” he added. “If it doesn’t pass, the ultimate people affected are going to be the students and employees.”

District resident Mark Tingle, speaking at the Dec. 19 board meeting said he isn’t sold on the school board’s actions or the referendum.

“When does the public get to put in an opinion on this?” he said. “You guys have the luxury of having no one actually going against you on these things, campaign against you or anything along those lines. But I got news for you; I think this time you are going to have people that are actively campaigning against it – yard signs, things along those lines.”

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