Indian River School District referendum approved by landslide

Indian River School District Superitendent Mark Steele shares results of the major capital referendum approved by a 3,001 vote margin. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

SELBYVILLE — The third time was the charm.

Indian River School District officials were in a celebratory mood Thursday night following overwhelming approval of a major capital referendum that clears the way for a new Sussex Central High School and repurposing of two other buildings — vital officials say in addressing enrollment growth and overwhelming overcrowding.

“We sometimes argue in this district and fuss and feud, but when it comes down to what we have got to get done we always seem to come through,” IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele said. “I can’t even express what the relief is. But I can say this; everything that we told the community through this operation of activities we hold true. This is going to solve a huge problem for this school district for a long time.”

Passage by a 7,536 to 4,535 margin followed referendum defeats in February and May of 2019. Thursday’s total turnout of 12,071 fell about 300 votes shy of the district record for referendum turnout.

With referendum approval, the district’s multi-pronged major capital improvement plan includes:

• Construction of a new 2,200-student capacity Sussex Central High School at the current campus;

• Relocation of Millsboro Middle School to the existing SCHS building;

• Conversion of existing Millsboro Middle School building into an elementary school.

Mr. Steele had termed passage of the Feb. 13 referendum “critical” in the long-range future of the district, formed through
consolidation five decades ago.

“With approval of this proposal, we can provide the best possible learning environment to the students on the Indian River School District for years to come,” said Mr. Steele. “On behalf of our students, staff and board of education, I want to thank everyone who supported this referendum. You truly have the best interests of our students at heart.”

Many of the schools in the northern Georgetown/Millsboro portion of the sprawling district are near, at or above capacity. Most notable is Sussex Central High School, built for 1,500 student capacity, that has more than 1,800 students, some of whom are being educated in 10 portable classroom units based on the high school campus.

Two more portable classrooms are based at North Georgetown Elementary.

On Jan. 29, 2020, IRSD’s enrollment was 11,171 students, an increase of 129 students from the Sept. 30 unit count of 10,942. Projections taken from several measuring models indicate enrollment growth will continue, due in part to anticipated residential development in several parts of the district.

IRSD’s 2019 Sept. 30 enrollment was nearly reached six years ahead of the University of Delaware’s Unified School District Enrollment Projection of 10,957.

The new school construction carries an approximate $146 million price tag. The local taxpayer share is $58.4 million in the 60/40 state/local funding ratio.

This will result in a maximum possible tax increase of $63.24 for the average district property owner. This increase will be phased in over a three-year period in the 20-year bond period. The amount will decrease commencing with the fourth year.

District officials have noted that IRSD is scheduled to retire seven construction bonds during the next five years. These resulting adjustments to debt service tax rate will lessen the impact of the new school construction and present significant savings to district taxpayers.

Had the referendum not passed, Mr. Steele said overcrowding would only worsen and many more portable classrooms with costly leases would be needed.

Additionally, district financial reserves would be depleted because of the high cost of leasing portable units, and district attendance boundaries might have to be redrawn, forcing students living in the northern feeder patterns to attend schools in the district’s southern end.

That’s now a moot point.

“I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to our public for supporting this important issue,” said Mr. Steele. “We are grateful that IRSD residents recognized the need for additional classroom space and approved our plan to solve overcrowding problems with the construction of only one new school.”

Mr. Steele estimates the timeframe for the new school and school conversions to be about four years.

“We’ll still have rent more trailers. There is just no way around it for the next four years,” he said. “We just have an awful lot of planning. And that is the fun part. We know that there is a light there at the end of the tunnel.”

The superintendent noted the support of the district staff, Indian River Education Association and Delaware State Education Association.

“Without everybody working together to get this through it would have never went through,” said Mr. Steele. “At end of day we passed this with a solid team effort.”