Sussex Tech dealt setback in new school quest

GEORGETOWN — Sussex Tech has been dealt a technical knockout blow.

Sussex Tech responded Tuesday morning after learning it did not win state approval for a new school. The district had applied to the Delaware Department of Education for a certificate of necessity, the first step in obtaining state support and funding for the capital improvement project for a $150.5 million replacement school at the current rural Georgetown campus.

In the wake of Delaware Department of Education’s certificate of necessity denial for a new facility, Sussex Technical School District officials remain committed in the quest for a replacement school it says will save taxpayers millions of dollars and augment the district’s vocational/technical educational renaissance.

“We remain very concerned about the condition of the building and the campus. Making repairs as problems develop is like slapping a Band-Aid on a severely bleeding wound,” said Sussex Tech Superintendent Stephen Guthrie. “We will apply again next year to try to meet our obligation to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, as building a replacement school will save at least $24 million over renovation.

“We will continue to serve our 1,250 high school students and 2,800 adult education students with a high-quality education. However, that will become more difficult as years go by without a replacement school. Our Sussex County students deserve the same quality educational experience as enjoyed by Kent and New Castle students.”

The countywide technical school, Sussex Tech learned that it was not selected to move forward in the process this year because other schools had ranked higher using the state’s priority criteria, which emphasizes school capacity over safety concerns and maintenance costs.

Indian River School District is in that mix, seeking state certificate of necessity approval to hold what would be a third referendum in hopes of alleviating spiraling enrollment and overcrowding/overcapacity issues.

IRSD’s request is scheduled to be addressed at the Oct. 28 board of education meeting, according to school district spokesman David Maull.

Sussex Tech’s situation and need have support of downstate lawmakers.

“There definitely is a need within Sussex County to expand vocational/technical training and it is my understanding that Sussex Tech is making a concerted effort to pivot and focus more on the vocational/technical training versus college prep programs,” said State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn. “I hope at some point in time we can get them what they need so that they can expand their programs to fulfill the demand of the workforce in Sussex County. We’ll just have to see what happens in the future.”

“There is a huge need for non-college-bound students to have a career,” said State Sen. Gerald Hocker. “There are well-paying jobs in a vocational career. There is a big push now to increase that. I know Sussex Tech is on board to try to increase that. I’m all in favor of vocational schools being for vocational students. That will help ease some of the pressure on the other school districts.”

“All the major contractors, electricians, heat and air, and all of that are crying for a good, experienced employees and they are just not there,” said Sen. Hocker. “I think where we got off track was that kind of push for college-bound students to go to a vocational school. Hopefully, we are ending that.”

The replacement school would have cost the average Sussex County homeowner just about $3.18 per month at the peak of the tax increase, according to school district officials.

Issues at Sussex Tech

According to school officials, maintenance problems are mounting at Sussex Tech.

Over the last several years, Sussex Tech has spent $14 million on maintenance and improvements, including roof repairs, renovations of technical areas, security upgrades and an overhaul to one of multiple HVAC systems.

“We are wasting money on critical repairs that could be spent on new HVAC or carpentry tools, updated computer equipment, or additional teachers. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road and throwing good money after bad,” Mr. Guthrie said. “A building that fails to meet modern standards in many categories is a building that hampers and hurts the education of our students.”

Over the summer, facing a washout in a much-used parking lot, the district spent $70,000 to replace 170 feet of collapsed decades-old terra-cotta stormwater pipe. It recently contracted with an engineering firm to begin the process of replacing the failing drainage system at the stadium and to evaluate piping underneath multiple parking lots to avoid similar collapses.

“Sussex Tech students deserve a school that trains and educates them for their futures, and Sussex County employers deserve students who are learning their craft not distracted by leaking roofs, broken heating systems, or holes in the parking lot,” said Sussex Tech School District board president Warren Reid. “This is disappointing, but we remain optimistic that Sussex County recognizes the value of a high-quality career-technical education and will continue to support this project.”

A review by architectural and engineering firm ABHA/BSA+A also identified a need for improved traffic circulation on campus to reduce twice-daily backups on U.S. 9; the importance of security upgrades that would come with a replacement school; and the need for improved, upgraded and flexible space for the school’s 17 career-technical areas.

“I know it does need major repair. We know that. We’ve seen some of that already,” Sen. Hocker said. “The presentation that was brought to us from the professional engineers, the new school makes the most sense. Probably another year would make a huge difference. You know, I’ve done a lot of remodels myself in my business and I’m telling you, sometimes it’s cheaper to bite the bullet and do a new structure.”

“Hopefully they will be able to use some of the funds they have for minor capital improvements and maintenance, to keep that building safe and running and able to be used until the board makes a final determination on how to move forward,” Sen. Pettyjohn said.

A district feasibility study outlined three options, with a replacement school being the cheapest choice at $150.5 million.

Renovation options would have cost at least $177.6 million, largely due to the need to create temporary career-technical classrooms and labs suitable for industry-standard equipment while work was going on, as well as making upgrades to existing infrastructure.

“A lot of people have questions about replacing schools that were built in the 60s, 70s and 80s when we still have schools around that were built in the 30s and are still being used and used to this day without tearing them down,” said Sen. Pettyjohn.

“Construction standards were different back in the 30s than back in the 60s and 70s. In the 60s and 70s they went toward trying to build with less material. Energy efficiency wasn’t that great. Walls weren’t as thick as they were back in the 30s and 40s. I think that was kind of one of the dark ages of municipal construction during the 60s and 70s.”

“They have several major maintenance issues that are really going to pile up and create big problems,” said Sen. Hocker. “They have got expert opinions and estimates, and from all that I have seen the cheapest route is a new building, and we need to take a look at it.”

IRSD referendum rebound

IRSD has twice met voter defeat in referendums.

A Feb. 5, 2019 referendum calling for a new Sussex Central High School, classroom additions at Indian River High School and Selbyville Middle School in a $158.1 million major capital improvement project that carried a 40-percent, $63.4 million local share failed by a margin of 3,866 to 3,202. A current expense request for a 9-cent increase met defeat by a 3,836 to 3,124 tally.

A major capital-only referendum held several months later in early May failed by a much closer margin, just 65 votes.

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