IR school board eyes options following 2 failed referendums

GEORGETOWN — In the wake of failed referendum attempts in February and May, Indian River School District school board members are leaning heavily toward a third major capital improvement pitch as the preferred option to address increasing enrollment and overcrowding.

“I’m convinced 100 percent we have to try again,” said board member Dr. Donald Hattier.

“The reality is our situation hasn’t changed,” said board member James Fritz. “So, to not apply for a CN (Certificate of Necessity) is really not the truth. If we are not applying because we are afraid we wouldn’t get it, our need hasn’t changed.

“I just think we just need to keep that in front of the state and do a better job at communicating with the voters.”

To address what district and board members label a critical and growing lack of classroom space and over-capacity at many of the 16 schools, the district sought referendum approval for a new 2,200-student Sussex Central High School, eight additional classrooms at Indian River High School and a four-classroom addition at Selbyville Middle School.

The initial request in early February, which included a separate current expense increase that was not included in the May referendum, was defeated by a 3,866-to-3,202 margin.

It was much closer the second time around with many more voters going to the polls. In the end the major capital proposal failed by 65 votes: 4,643-to-4,578.

The proposed $158.1 million major capital improvement project carried a 40-percent $63.4 million local share and would have meant a maximum possible tax increase of $68.96 for the average district property owner.

From the June 10 special board of education meeting came six possible options presented by IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele, along with advice and offers of support from Rose Watkins, a member of the district’s Citizens Budget Oversight Committee, and Long Neck resident Joyce Logan.

Mr. Steele said the district’s cabinet “has taken a good look at these and come up with ideas like looking at locations where we have space and looking at pros and looking at cons.”

“We don’t have to make any kind of major decision this evening, but I think we need to think about this going into at least the June board meeting or July board meeting, because there are some things that may require a decision, and some that may not,” said Mr. Steele. “One thing I said after the last two referendums; we can’t take anything off the table.

“Because we’re continuing to grow and we’re going to have to make some decisions, some may be OK some may not be very popular decisions but we’re going to have to take a look at some things in the future on how we’re going to solve this problem – unless we can get another referendum through.”

In addition to seeking Department of Education certificate of necessity approval for a third referendum, options presented included:

• Option 1: Creating a Ninth Grade Academy for Sussex Central and Indian River freshmen, utilizing John M. Clayton Elementary, which in a previous life was Indian River High School. JMC Elementary students would relocate to the G.W. Carver Academy building, also in Frankford;

• Option 2: Convert G.W. Carver Academy into a STEM Magnet K-12 school;

• Option 3: Expand Southern Delaware School of the Arts to a K-12 school comparable to Cab Calloway School in the Wilmington area. This would decrease high school enrollments at SCHS and IRHS by about 200 students;

• Option 4: Major capital referendum. The pros, Mr. Steele said, is that would give the district sufficient space for approximately eight to 10 years. On the “con” side, Mr. Steele said there is no guarantee certificates of necessity would be approved at the state level. “We already had two failed attempts … we may or may not be approved to move forward.”

• Option 5: Continue to add portable classroom units. That would give the district immediate space, albeit temporary. Modular units carry a five-year lease and are supported by the district’s operational funds, not state funding. There are also permitting issues, Mr. Steele said, noting that district did not receive a letter of “no contest” from the Department of Transportation in regard to bringing four portables to Sussex Central High School “due to not having sidewalks in the front of the school. So, we’re going to have a fight I believe to get them to approve it.”

Also, portable classrooms do not address the common area space issues, such as cafeteria, hallways and gymnasium. And because they are not inclusive in the school building, there are safety concerns, Mr. Steele said.

• Option 6: Study and possibly re-district current attendance area boundaries. Mr. Steele said he believes this would be the least popular option.

Transportation costs in most of these options would increase, some significantly, Mr. Steele noted.

If some schools were repurposed, renovations would have to made to accommodate such needs as science labs.

“We could do any one of them but ultimately item No. 4 (another referendum) has to be revisited for the long term. That should be done concurrently in my opinion regardless,” Dr. Hattier said.

“Whether it is rejected again or not that is going to force the public then to take a look at what we actually are going through and the impact it is going to have on their kids’ education.”

If the district opts for the major capital referendum route, the deadline for CN submission is in late August, Mr. Steele said.

The latest enrollment projection for next year is 11,253 students, up from the official Sept. 30 count of 10,697.

Mr. Steele said he recently met with Millsboro Town Manager Sheldon Hudson regarding growth in the Millsboro area. There are about 1,200 permits for homes, many in Plantation Lakes development.

“They are not all going to be retirees,” said Mr. Steele. “Enrollment growth) might slow down a little bit, but Millsboro is going to continue to grow immensely.”

Joyce Logan talks to the school board.

IRSD school board vice president Rodney Layfield suggested the district discuss its dilemma with local legislators and ask the legislature to “get rid of prevailing wage, and cut 15 to 20 percent right off the top of the cost. We are in dire straits. We’ve got an overcrowding issue.

“We’ve got an issue with getting the referendum passed. We’re looking to cut cost. At least ask …”
In addition to the major capital proposal, Mr. Layfield said he also likes the idea of the Ninth Grade Academy. “That could allow us to survive, taking a quarter population of both high schools,” he said. “That seems to be the quickest fix for our most severe crowding.”

Charles Bireley, the board’s president, suggested the district seek more assistance from Sussex County, which collects school taxes for districts.

“All of these items are going to cost a tremendous amount of money,” Mr. Bireley said. “One of the things we can try … we should try to put some pressure on the county council about collecting the money that is due to this school district.” About $4 million is owed, Mr. Bireley said.

“Right now, its $3.9 million and that is just what the Indian River School District is owed,” said Mr. Fritz, adding what is owed to IRSD “goes back to 1984.”

Board member Gerald Peden inquired about the possible use of the Howard T. Ennis building as something like a West Georgetown Elementary, once the new Ennis School in built.

Mr. Steele said there is ongoing communication with Delaware Technical Community College, which owns the Ennis property.

Ms. Watkins, who worked 37 years in the private sector and most recently as a consultant, urged the district to take a different approach.

“Change is unsettling but necessary. A referendum is not your problem. Educating the people to understand the benefit of education is your problem. I don’t think you are focusing enough on the benefits of the educational curriculum that you have in the school district,” said Ms. Watkins. “Why aren’t you selling the successes?”

“There are some voters, if you go out there with these fancy financial reports, they don’t care about that. You have to talk to them in a language they understand, not a language you understand,” Ms. Watkins added.

“I’m going to offer my help to as a change management strategist to come up with a plan and an approach long-term, short-term on how to communicate with the public to get you where you want to go. What is going to be the different message? What are you going to do differently? We need legislative change. Change the conversation, change the dialogue, in their language. You are going to have to find courage, guts, intestinal fortitude.”

Board member Leolga Wright offered similar comment. She suggested a phone call-in line or an online survey, to better reach out to the community.
“We need to start putting information out there,’ she said. “We’ve got to step up our game plan.”
Ms. Wright also focused on the issue of illegal immigrants.
“One of the things — and you hear this all the time was (voters) don’t want to pay for a person that is not a citizen of the United States for their education. We have to do better at selling that point.

“Because no matter what they say, the kid didn’t ask to be here. The kid is here. The kid deserves an education and eventually that kid will go into the public sector,” Ms. Wright said.
“One day they are going to be a teacher, a principal, a doctor, lawyer, cashier. Is it not better to help along the way to get these kids educated than it is to take that back seat and say, ‘I’m not going to do it as long as you continue to have … illegals in the system.’ We can’t deny those kids that right.”

Ms. Wright’s statement stirred follow-up comment from Dr. Hattier. “The other side of that point is not only do we not have enough money, but all of the other kids that are local kids are now being denied an opportunity because we are struggling along,” said Dr. Hattier.

“It is not that they want to hurt the illegals, I kind of understand that on one hand, but on the other hand it is hurting the other kids that already here. We don’t have the resources to take care of them, so now you are hurting everybody.”

“Tell me who is illegal and who is not illegal?” said Mr. Fritz.
“You can’t,” said Dr. Hattier.
Ms. Logan, the last to take the podium at the meeting, spoke as a 75-year-old senior citizen who said she treasures and supports education. She was there to help educate her step-children and step-grandchildren.

“I’ve paid taxes all of my life,” said Logan, noting some senior citizens are against referendums and raising school taxes because they no longer have kids in school

“Why can’t you help the next generation?,” said Ms. Logan. “We need the schools. I’ll be a spokesman for the taxpayer.”

Ms. Logan went one step further, suggesting action, possibly at the state level, be pursued to secure tax-dollar support for education and schools from people relocating to Delaware to escape heavier taxation in neighboring states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“The states that they were coming from they were paying $7,000 to $8,000 for taxes a year,” Ms. Logan said. “Get the taxes from these people.”

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