Commentary: Passage of Indian River referendum ‘absolutely critical’

By Mark Steele

The Indian River School District is holding a major capital referendum on Thursday, Feb. 13. Passage of this referendum is absolutely critical to the future of our district.

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 plan is to construct a new Sussex Central High School and to relocate Millsboro Middle School to the existing Sussex Central High School building. To further alleviate overcrowding, the current Millsboro Middle School will be converted into an additional elementary school. The upcoming retirement of seven 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. There will be no cost to taxpayers for the conversion of existing schools into middle and elementary schools.

This plan was designed to not only address current overcrowding issues in the northern portion of the district but to create space for future growth. The new high school will also be built on land already owned by the district, creating additional savings for taxpayers.

District budgets over the past three years were developed to aggressively build a strong reserve. Next year’s reserve will be approximately $13.5-14 million, which is approximately 8.5 percent of our overall budget. Our plan is to utilize these reserves in the future to fund the local portion of smaller classroom additions, thereby eliminating the need to ask our taxpayers for a major capital increase.

This referendum will increase school taxes between $49 and $63 for those with the average district property assessment. This increase will be phased in over three years. Because of the retirement of several existing bonds, property taxes will begin to decrease significantly over the following seven years. Major capital bonds work similarly to home mortgages. This bond will reach the maximum increase in three years then begin to drop until it reaches $0.

The implications should this referendum not pass could be far-reaching for the district and its taxpayers, resulting in a more costly solutions in the near future. The following events would be the result of a failed referendum:

• Increased enrollment in all district schools, leading to increased enrollment in individual classrooms.

• Operating funds will be depleted due to the leasing or purchasing of additional portable classroom units. The cost of five portable units cost the district approximately $425,000 this year and $10,600 per month for the next four years. We are predicting a need of 20 to 25 portable units by the 2024-2025 school year should this referendum not pass.

• The district would need to hold a current expense referendum within two to three years to increase operational funding. Failure to increase operational funding would result in staff and program cuts. Currently, the increase in taxes that we receive from the massive amount of residential development within our district helps us maintain operating expenses for staff salaries, instructional materials and programs without the need to request an increase in our current expense tax.

Increased use of operating funds to lease or purchase portable classrooms will not allow the increase in tax revenues to support the instructional programs.

• The district would need to develop a plan for busing students from the northern portion of the district to schools located in the southern portion. This would simply expand the current overcrowding problem into the southern schools and create the need for additional portables. This would also increase the local portion of transportation funding due to longer bus routes and would significantly increase the time that students will be on the school bus on a daily basis.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Indian River School District. During the last 50 years, we have faced many obstacles due to the geographical size of our district. Regardless of these obstacles, our students have always performed extremely well at the state and national levels. Our teachers and support staff have always strived to challenge our students to work hard and achieve success.

Our school and district maintenance staff has taken impeccable care of our buildings, some of which are approaching 90-100 years of age. As stated above, this referendum is critical in providing our students a safe and secure environment to learn. Please review all the facts and support our students by voting for the major capital increase on Thursday, Feb. 13.

Mark Steele is superintendent of the Indian River School District.