Sussex military academy plan revised as magnet school

Laurel’s historic 1921 school building on Central Avenue is the focus of a feasability study as a possible home for Sussex Military Academy as a magnet school in the Laurel School Distrct. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

LAUREL — Officials have changed the proposal for a Sussex County military academy from a charter school option to a magnet school.

Two months after the announcement of a planned charter school called Sussex Military Academy in Laurel, the Laurel School District and Sussex Military Academy’s board of directors agree the best option is to develop a military magnet school. The school would be managed by — and part of — the Laurel School District, and housed in Laurel’s historic 1921 school building.

Dr. Shawn Larrimore

“As a group, the SMA Board and the Laurel School District realized that there were some severe disadvantages to the military school being organized as a charter school,” said Laurel School District Superintendent Dr. Shawn Larrimore. “Chief among them is that it would be highly unlikely that the cost associated with renovating the historic 1921 building would be covered through fundraising alone.

“That leaves us with two options — a loan or a major capital project referendum. And both are problematic, as it is extremely unlikely that a third party — bank or loaning authority — would lend a second party (SMA Board) funds to improve a building owned by a first party (Laurel School District).”

Dr. Larrimore added that the Laurel School District “wishes to retain ownership of the school and property, as it is the centerpiece of our town and is located directly in front of one of our new schools, Laurel Elementary School. A major capital project referendum is also problematic because charter schools, per Delaware Code, are not eligible for major capital project referendums.”

Laurel School District plans to pursue the military magnet school option with the Sussex Military Academy board of directors serving as an advisory group.

The 1921 school building was salvaged during the district’s major capital improvement that produced two new school campuses. Laurel Historical Society archives show the two-story structure served as a military academy from 1921 to 1926.

“The historic 1921 building is the only potential home for a military academy in Laurel,” Dr. Larrimore said. “The Laurel School District has contracted for a feasibility study on the building, and we are awaiting military program requirements from SMA’s military contact.”

Over the past six-plus months, the Sussex Military Academy board and Laurel School District explored all options associated with establishing a military academy in the town of Laurel, a school that would be accessible to all Sussex County high school students. Conceptual plans were unveiled publicly by SMA board member Dr. Kevin Carson and SMA board chairman Greg Johnson at the Nov. 20, 2019 Laurel board of education meeting.

The academy would consist of grades 9-12 and serve upward of 500 male and female students who could benefit from a ROTC instructional program combined with solid academics that would produce career options.

The intent was to model SMA after Delaware Military Academy in New Castle County and the First State Military Academy in Kent County. The SMA board preferred affiliation with the U.S. Army.

A magnet school, Dr. Carson noted, is an extension of an existing school system and offers special instruction and programs not available elsewhere. It is designed to attract a diverse student body with shared interests.

“It primarily comes down to governance,” said Dr. Carson, among SMA’s seven founding board members. “When a charter is authorized to operate in Delaware either through the Department of Education and/or a standing school district, the key differential is that there is an independent board of directors with a charter school that has a charter document and agreement with the authorizer to operate under prescribed manner of operation contained within the document. So, you have an autonomous board that has responsibility for administration, Human Resource, finance.”

Examples of magnet schools, Dr. Carson noted, are the Cab Calloway School of Performing Arts in Wilmington, within the Red Clay School District; and the Southern Delaware School of the Arts in Selbyville, a magnet school in the Indian River School District.
Sussex Academy, on the other hand, is an example of a charter school, Dr. Carson said.

“In this case (military academy) the magnet would come under the governance of the superintendent and board of education in the Laurel School District,” said Dr. Carson. “A magnet is a school within a school. It allows for a specialized form of instruction under the heading of a magnet.”

There remains a Sussex Military Academy board, which is incorporated. “The board will determine what its future direction is going to be,” said Dr. Carson.

“They (SMA board) would be honored as founding members,” Dr. Larrimore said. “They would continue to serve in an advisory capacity to the Laurel School District and the Laurel Board of Education in regard to the school’s military needs.”

At its November presentation, the SMA board was hopeful for a 2021 or 2022 academy opening. Dr. Larrimore had no prediction or firm timeline at present.

“That is unclear, as there are a lot of steps in between now and then,” said Dr. Larrimore. “The first step is to get the feasibility study completed to determine how much it will cost to renovate the 1921 building to house a military program. We look to get the feasibility study completed by this spring.”