Indian River School District sets Feb. 5 for referendum

Sussex Central High School, built with 1,500-student capacity, has been well over capacity for several years. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

SELBYVILLE — The Indian River School District has circled early February 2019 for a major capital/current expense referendum seeking public approval for a new high school and classroom expansion at two other schools.

IRSD’s board of education at its Nov. 26 meeting unanimously approved Tuesday, Feb. 5 as the date for the referendum, which school district officials stress is desperately needed to address increasing enrollment and capacity/overcrowding within the district.

Armed with three certificate of necessity approvals from the state, the district is seeking voter approval to:

• Build a new Sussex Central High School at the current Patriots Way campus, capable of accommodating 2,200 students;

• Add four new classrooms at Selbyville Middle School; and

• Add eight new classrooms at Indian River High School.

With referendum passage, the district would convert the current Sussex Central High School, with a 1,500-student capacity, into a middle school and convert the current Millsboro Middle School into another elementary school.

The total cost of new construction and classroom addition projects is projected to be just over $158 million. Based on the 60/40 state/local ratio, the burden on IRSD taxpayers would be approximately $63.4 million.

Mark Steele

“Keep in mind, it sounds like a lot of money, this is … over 20 years through the bond issuance,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele.

In addition, the referendum request will seek a 9-cent increase in the district’s current expense tax rate, which at present is $2.35. The district’s overall tax rate, approved by the school board in late June, presently stands at $3.067 per $100 of assessed value for fiscal year 2019.

Sussex County assessments date to 1974.

Mr. Steele said the proposed $63.4 local share represents a huge reduction — and tax dollar savings — from a plan explored several years ago. That proposal, which never reached fruition, called for a new middle school, a new elementary school and major renovation to Sussex Central High School at a combined projected cost of $186 million. That actual local share of those CNs put together two years ago would have been about $75 million.

“So, by thinking outside the box and utilizing our facilities that we already have, right off the bat we save $11 million to $12 million. If you take a look at that, the program two years ago, we would have been opening up two new buildings, so our current expense would have probably had to double, since we were going into two new buildings,” said Mr. Steele, who estimates the current proposal overall will probably “save our taxpayers somewhere $16 million to $18 million, just by thinking outside the box.”

“I think the proposal that we will be taking out to the public – thought processes that have gone into this, utilizing what we already had, maximizing that use and building one facility – that alone is going to be a major savings for our taxpayers,” said Mr. Steele.

Jan Steele, IRSD’s Director of Business, said the current expense estimate of approximately $1.4 million is less than the original amount presented at the finance committee meeting.

“I had teacher salaries included in a new elementary school,” said Ms. Steele, adding after follow-up discussion and a meeting with the cabinet group those teacher salaries were taken out of her original proposal. “Because at the elementary school they will be getting students in that building and will earn those units based on students that we already have, if we assume that there is no growth. We know there will growth, but if you look at it for no growth.”

“We shared with the board at the finance committee meeting. We had kind of looked at an initial plan. That has changed somewhat. We had some discussions after the fact,” said Mr. Steele.

“So, it has been trimmed quite a bit,” said IRSD board member James Fritz.

For the cost associated with the additional elementary school which would be in the existing Millsboro Middle School building, the district would need the local share of salaries for secretaries, custodians, safety monitor and funding for the school budget and curriculum … “expenses we don’t currently have now, but we need going forward in that school,” said Ms. Steele.

Looking at new costs associated with the brand new school, which would be four to five years down the road, there would be increased enrollment. Ms. Steele said there would be added local salary money for teaching positions, utilities, maintenance supplies and transportation.

In working with Tyler Bryan, IRSD’s Transportation Systems Analyst, Ms. Steele said there would be an estimated additional $75,000 in transportation, which encompass some boundary changes for the elementary school and re-configuration for the middle school.

Based on new assessments, every penny in the tax equation in the IRSD generates $163,000, thus the nine-cent request for $1.4 million.

The referendum encompasses two separate tax increases – current expense and debt service, which covers the bonds for building project.

At present, IRSD’s overall tax rate, $3.067, is the lowest among all public school districts in Sussex County. That does not include Sussex Tech, which like other technical high schools in Delaware has its tax rate set through General Assembly approval, not through referendums.

Capacity and over-crowding has been a simmering issue for several years. The majority of the district’s 16 schools are at or over-capacity with continued growth anticipated, particularly in the district’s heavy Hispanic population in the Georgetown/Millsboro area.

Sussex Central High School, built with 1,500-student capacity, has been well over capacity for several years. If used as a middle school, the SCHS building capacity would be 1,800, although Mr. Steele previously has said he believes 1,000 middle schoolers would be more accommodating number.

The Millsboro Middle School building, with an 800-student middle school capacity, would have a 934-student capacity as an elementary school, again should the district decides to go the maximum route.

The Feb. 5 referendum date is the earliest available from the Sussex County Department of Elections, which also required the district to submit a makeup date in the event of major inclement weather on Feb. 5. That date is Tuesday, Feb. 19.

School board vice president Rodney Layfield inquired about any foreseeable advantage to the district in gaining voter support with any calendar dates.

“We don’t see anything on the calendar that is really going to effect it either way,” said Mr. Steele. “I would get it (held) early because if it is successful, fine. If we need to come back, we have to wait – I believe it’s 45 or 60 days – so that gives us enough time to get back in April.”

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