Commentary: ‘Bad visuals’ led to failure of Indian River School District referendum

Like many, I had mixed feelings about the Indian River School District referendum (May 7). My wife and I are both IR grads, and both of our children are in the district now. I feel my kids are getting a good education. There are a lot of kids who aren’t, but I think that has more to do with their home life and lack of parental support than it does with a lack of opportunities within the schools.

We have always seen the same group of parents out supporting their kids at after-school events, coming to school meetings, and so on. Surprise! These are the kids excelling in school and more district money isn’t going to fix that. There has always been an adequate supply of good teachers to fill the spots in the district. It is a good job with benefits around here, allowing people to live in our great area.

I’m not implying it is easy in any way, and I know many teachers and administrators personally that I think are doing a great job for our kids. I, like many, do not think there is a linear relationship between money spent by the district and the quality of the education delivered.

In the past, when Indian River has made the case for more funding, we the people of Sussex County have delivered. We see the examples of neighboring states paying many times more in property tax and where that money ends up: in bloated administrative staff making high salaries, and teacher pay and benefits not tied to performance. We like our district mean and lean, but we cough it up when they really need it.

So why did the referendum fail? In my opinion, bad visuals. Several things have happened in the district and state to really rile people up, and these items were not addressed. In no particular order, we’ll start with the recent corruption cases in the district. There were some shenanigans going on where the district was fleeced.

The people were caught but were not prosecuted. If you dig into it, the excuse was that the prosecutor didn’t think the case was strong enough. That doesn’t sit well with many. You go after these people and make an example out of them, or you don’t look like good stewards to the taxpayers. Maybe it would have been a waste to pursue a case that really couldn’t be won, but — bad visual.

We have a national problem with illegal immigration, but it is a problem with direct local consequences. There are a lot of undocumented immigrants in our local schools. I don’t blame the kids. They had nothing to do with it. I don’t really blame their parents. They are trying to better their lives and came where they thought they could. But it has costs, and these costs are part of why we need more classrooms now in Sussex County.

How big is the local issue? You can’t get an answer from the district because they aren’t allowed to talk about it. They can’t ask a kid about their citizenship before enrolling them. They can’t ask but voters can, and it would behoove the politicians at the state or federal level who are allowed to talk about it to quantify it, because voters won’t be gagged. I know this is a controversial issue to many, but it was a factor.

Development in our area is booming. There are more houses added every day, and some of those houses are going to be occupied by people with kids. What about impact fees? Transfer taxes are paid by everyone buying and selling homes no matter how old the homes are, but common sense says if you are making great money by increasing the density by 1,000 homes in what used to be a cornfield, maybe you should pony up for the additional infrastructure (roads and schools) those new people will need.

I’ve heard some local politicians say there isn’t an interest in more impact fees. Who are you asking? Realtors? Developers? I am not demonizing either, but I also don’t think our local economy will be crippled by a development slowdown if we make developers bear more of the cost they are adding to the area. Don’t ask the current residents to subsidize that industry. Impact fees are common practice in many areas throughout the country.

(Superintendent) Mark Steele made no secret of the plan to have multiple referendums to pay for increased operating costs, then infrastructure. He stated that clearly a couple years ago. But it looks bad to go back to the well multiple times in a short period. Those who were not aware of the plan are incensed that they just passed a tax increase, and now here is another one. Bad visual.

It doesn’t help that our state legislature is proposing automatic property tax increases without voter approval for inflation adjustments. Bad timing to bring that up. At least a few votes were in response to that. “You want to ask for my money and then take it anyway regardless?” Bad visual.

And meanwhile, what has our state department of education been up to? Working hard to find ways to improve our schools? Apparently crafting a policy to allow children to self-declare their gender and race without parental knowledge or consent is the top priority of Delaware educators.

Now I am a live and let live guy. To each their own in the bedroom, and I don’t care about your ethnicity either. But this was the big focus of our state department of education? And now they need more money? Bad visual.

I’ve known Mark Steele since he just started as one of my high school science teachers. I know Doc Hattier from our local Boy Scout troop. I know many teachers and administrators, and in my opinion, almost all are good, decent people. If they say we need more classrooms, I believe them.

Population is obviously growing around here. There will have to be a vote again sometime in the future. I hope they wait a while so people can cool off. And when it does come up, they are going to have to work on those visuals. It seems many tried to frame this referendum in a tiny box where voters couldn’t ask about any of the real concerns they had about our local school funding and growth. Voters won’t be silenced and will take that box and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine, and in my opinion that is exactly what they did.

Sandy Smyth is a resident of Ocean View.

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