IRSD hosting public meetings to highlight major cap referendum

Sussex Central High School would become the new home for Millsboro Middle School with passage of a major capital referendum in February supporting construction of a new high school. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

SELBYVILLE — Indian River School District is hitting the campaign trail with a series of public meetings in the coming weeks highlighting the district’s major capital improvement referendum set for Thursday, Feb. 13.

The district is seeking funding for a new 2,200-student high school that will replace the existing Sussex Central High School, which is several hundred students over capacity. Many other schools in the district are also over capacity.

The district’s 40-percent local share is $58,437,700. The remaining 60 percent ($87,656,300) of the project costs will be funded by the state through an approved certificate of necessity.

Two referendums failed last year — in February and May — that called for a new Sussex Central High School and classroom additions at Selbyville Middle School and Indian River High School.

The Feb. 5, 2019 referendum included a request for a current expense tax increase, which was not included in the May 7 referendum.
District officials hope a third time will be the charm.

“Passage of this referendum is absolutely critical to the future of the Indian River School District,” IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele said. “Overcrowding in the northern end of the district is reaching a crisis stage and the construction plan being put before voters is the most equitable solution. The upcoming retirement of previous 20-year bond issues is making it possible to implement property tax increases for only three years to fund the construction of the new high school. The time has never been better for residents to approve this measure, as the district’s economic climate will provide the best possible value for taxpayers.”

Mark Steele

The district will host three public meetings regarding the referendum:

• Wednesday, Jan. 22 at Sussex Central High School, 7 p.m.

• Wednesday, Jan. 29 at Indian River High School, 7 p.m.

• Monday, Feb. 3 at Lord Baltimore Elementary School, 7 p.m.

At each meeting, district officials will give a presentation outlining the initiative, where the public can ask questions.

In addition, the district has scheduled a special public meeting for senior citizens to explain the major capital improvement referendum and to highlight the various tax assistance programs available to seniors.

That meeting will be held Wednesday, Jan. 29 at 9 a.m. in the Sussex Central High School auditorium, 26026 Patriots Way, Georgetown.

An approved referendum would result in a maximum possible tax increase of $63.24 for the “average” district property owner, to be phased in over a three-year period, according to district officials.

Voting on Feb. 13 is from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.

District residents who are U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age are eligible to vote at these polling places: East Millsboro Elementary School, Georgetown Elementary School, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary School, Lord Baltimore Elementary School and Selbyville Middle School.

In the event of inclement weather, the referendum will be held one week later, on Feb. 20.

The district is scheduled to retire seven construction bonds during the next five years. The resulting adjustments to the debt service tax rate will lessen the impact of the new school construction and present significant savings to district taxpayers, district officials said.

With a capacity of 2,200 students, the new Sussex Central High School building will be approximately 309,799 square feet and be built on district-owned property next to the existing high school.

The referendum’s major capital improvement proposal will alleviate overcrowding in the northern end of the district through the construction of only one new school instead of several.

The district also plans to renovate and repurpose two existing school buildings. Under that plan, Millsboro Middle School will move into the existing Sussex Central High School building and the existing Millsboro Middle School will be converted into an additional elementary school.

“If this referendum is not successful, the state of Delaware is unlikely to approve any major capital improvement projects in our district for several years,” Mr. Steele said. “This will delay the construction process indefinitely. Meanwhile, overcrowding will worsen and the educational environment in our schools will be adversely affected. We will also have to purchase more outdoor portable classrooms, which are costly and present safety concerns.”

“Furthermore, we may be forced to redraw attendance boundaries to shift more students to the southern end of the district,” Mr. Steele said. “As a result, some students who currently attend schools in the northern end will reside in new feeder patterns that will require them to attend schools in the south. Simply put, some students who presently live in the Sussex Central High School feeder pattern may be shifted south into the Indian River High School feeder pattern.”

Need for more classroom space

According to the school district, additional classroom space is needed to address a large increase in enrollment during the past eight years. IRSD’s total enrollment is 10,942 students in grades PreK-12.

This represents an increase of 2,071 students since 2011, which school officials said has put a strain on classroom space at several school buildings. Enrollment growth is projected to continue during the next five years and reach 12,137 students by 2024.

The overcrowding problem is especially severe at Sussex Central High School, where more than 1,800 students are currently housed in a building designed for 1,500. By 2024, the school’s enrollment will be more than 1,950 with the building at 131 percent capacity.

Common areas such as the cafeteria, auditorium and hallways are no longer large enough to accommodate SCHS’s student population. The school could eventually be forced to add more lunch periods.

Currently, 22 teachers do not have classrooms and must move from room to room while carrying their belongings on a cart.

The district has already installed outdoor portable classrooms at Sussex Central High School and North Georgetown Elementary School.
Sussex Central is currently utilizing 10 portable classrooms and North Georgetown two. Local funds must be used to lease the classrooms, which are costly and create safety and security concerns because they are outside of the main school building.

“This referendum will impact the entire Indian River School District, not just the northern schools,” Mr. Steele said. “If we are forced to continue adding portable classrooms at overcrowded schools, the annual cost of the units will deplete the district’s operating reserves.”

As a result, the district would be forced to host a current expense referendum to replenish the operating funds that pay for staffing, services and instructional supplies, Mr. Steele has stated at several board of education meetings.

“All district schools would be impacted by these funding shortages, not just those in the northern end. Furthermore, a current expense tax increase will be permanent and not phased out over time like a debt service tax increase,” Mr. Steele said.

The maximum property tax increase needed to fund the district’s local share of $58.4 million for the Sussex Central construction project is 28 cents per $100 of assessed value. This equates to a tax increase of $63.24 for the average district property owner. The increase would be phased in over a three-year period and not reach the maximum until fiscal year 2023. After FY23, the debt service rate would decrease every year until construction bonds are retired.

The additional capital improvement projects will not require a property tax increase.

In addition, attendance areas in Georgetown, Millsboro and Long Neck will be redrawn to alleviate overcrowding.

Referendum Hotline

For more information, contact Indian River’s Referendum Hotline at (302) 436-1079 or visit irsd.net/referendum.