Indian River voters approve tax hike

SELBYVILLE — Indian River voters in a record turnout Thursday approved the school district’s followup $7.35 million current expense referendum pitch that officials say will support enrollment growth, school safety and student services.

The results, unofficial as of Thursday evening, showed the proposal won with about 57 percent of the vote, 7,095 to 5,394.

“This vote is just astronomical. It passed by over 1,700 votes – 1,701 to be exact – and that’s incredible,” said Mark Steele, the school district’s interim superintendent.

“I am so grateful for the public’s support. It is unbelievable that we were able to work together and get this through amongst strong support against and strong support for. At the end, I think that is just an incredible show of our community.”

With the referendum’s approval the average district taxpayer will see an increase of $95.41 in their annual property tax bill, according to officials.

The turnout, counting 475 absentee ballots, totaled 12,489 – nearly double the turnout in the first referendum on Nov. 22 that was rejected by 20 votes.

Thursday’s turnout was by far the largest ever in Indian River School District history. It shattered the previous high of 8,437 votes cast in a May 2000 major capital improvement referendum. That referendum provided the local support for two new high schools – Sussex Central and Indian River – as well as other renovation projects within the district.

Had Thursday’s referendum gone down to defeat, the district would have faced substantial cuts, officials claimed, not counting cuts that potentially loom if anticipated reduction in state funding holds true.

Officials also claimed the referendum’s defeat could have encompassed the potential loss of 90 teachers, 20 paraprofessionals, 12 food service staff, 10 custodians and 7.5 secretaries.

Five administrative contracts were not renewed for 2017-18 in addition to the five administrative positions that are currently unfilled.

The first referendum was held five days after the release of a state audit that cited the district for lack of financial oversight and internal controls and placing “blind faith” in its chief financial officer, Patrick Miller, who was placed on administrative leave in April and subsequently retired.

The March 2 referendum was held several days after State Auditor Thomas Wagner, in a followup report from the Office of Auditor of Accounts, commended the Indian River School District for corrective measures taken as a result of the special investigation report issued Nov. 17, 2016.

In Thursday’s referendum, the proposal drew majority support at five of six polling places: Georgetown Elementary, Indian River High School, Lord Baltimore, Selbyville Middle School and East Millsboro Elementary. Residents who voted at Long Neck Elementary opposed the measure by a 926-869 margin.

Indian River School District interim superintendent Mark Steele addressed the outcome of the current expense referendum.

“We had a group of parents – we call them our ambassadors – who have worked with us since the middle or beginning of January,” he said. “I could just sit here and talk about those people all night long. They have just done an absolutely incredible job; working Facebook, working social media, giving me pointers, letting me know what is going on so I knew what I needed to address.”

Thirty-three cents of the increase will be used to hire additional teachers and paraprofessionals authorized through the annual unit count and fund the purchase of additional supplies, materials and furniture to accommodate student enrollment growth. This will total $4,950,000.

For school safety and student services/support, $1.2 million is earmarked for each.

Mr. Steele, who was appointed interim superintendent in late January when Dr. Susan Bunting becase the state’s secretary of education, believes the prospect of cuts in state funding factored in the decisive outcome.

Word out of Dover is anticipated cuts in state education funding for fiscal year 2018 could require every district in the state to reduce its spending anywhere from 2.5 to 10 percent. For the Indian River district, that could mean between $2.4 million and $9.5 million.

“I think a lot of our parents looked at it and thought, ‘You know, that is going to be a little bit too much. If we take on the state cuts and take on the local cut, if it doesn’t pass it’s going to be devastating,’” Mr. Steele said.

“The board has worked phenomenally with me, taking a good look at ourselves as a district and what we wanted to do to change,” said Mr. Steele. “As I’ve said before, even though this passes we are still going to have to lean our budget. I’ve said that consistently. And we’ll start to work on that. We’ll get our budget in line where it needs to be.

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