Appoquinimink School District seeks support of referendum

ODESSA — A possible expansion for Appoquinimink School District looms large next month, as the district prepares to go out for referendum.

The referendum, which combines operating and major capital requests, is set for Dec. 17. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. For a full list of voting places, visit http://bit.ly/AppoPollingPlaces

If approved, the average taxpayer in the district would see an increase of about $253 annually. The district is seeking a hike of 28.37 cents for every $100 of assessed value for operating and major capital expenses.

“We want to continue to offer top quality education for our kids because they deserve it — and our parents deserve it and our community deserves it,” Appoquinimink Superintendent Matt Burrows said. “We need their support. That’s what this comes down to.”

With the district exceeding growth projections — increasing by more than 400 students this year — raising capital funds would allow for the construction of two new buildings, laying the foundation for a K-12 campus on Summit Bridge Road.

The state approved $58 million in capital projects, which includes only new construction, for the district that encompasses Middletown, Odessa and Townsend. The district must raise the remaining portion needed through a voter-approved tax hike.

With the funding, Appoquinimink would purchase a 142-acre plot of land across from the Summit Airport in Middletown to build a new elementary school and begin a future K-12 campus. The elementary school, with a fall 2023 anticipated completion date, would hold 840 students. In a “land swap” with the town of Middletown, the district would construct an early education center next to Brick Mill Elementary School. The early education center would house 330 students with a projected opening of fall 2021.

“In the heart of town, which is the biggest populous area, we don’t currently have an early childhood center. So those children are all traveling, and they’re our youngest kids,” said Lilian Miles, a spokeswoman for the district. “So this will be a really good beneficial, we think, to have them right there on a campus.”

Due to size, Dr. Burrows noted that the district currently utilizes modular classrooms in many of its buildings — which the district leases and pays monthly rent for.

“That’s coming directly out of our local operational budget,” he said. “It’s not sustainable.”

The district is looking for an additional $16 million to replace Middletown High School’s roof and HVAC system, as well as its turf fields. These projects would not be supported by the state and would be locally funded only, but are included in the overall ask.

Dr. Burrows said that the district has asked for state support for Middletown High three times.

“And it’s been denied three times,” he said. “It’s at a critical point now where we need to replace that roof and HVAC system, or we are going to have some infrastructure problems in that building.”

The turf fields, which the community supported in a 2006 referendum, are also at the end of their lifespan.

“The sun has broken down the fibers in the field where we have them inspected every six months. They are now telling us that we’ve reached a critical point that we don’t get them replaced we’re going to have some safety issues on those fields with our kids,” Dr. Burrows said. “So we appreciate the community’s initial investment in that we’d like to continue to have that investment.”

Operating referendum

Increasing population size doesn’t necessitate just buildings, however.

As part of the district’s request, the largest portion of the tax increase would go to operating costs. The district breaks down its needs as: staff recruitment and retention, safety and security, replacement of instructional technology and enrollment growth.

Dr. Burrows said that Appoquinimink has the lowest paid teachers in New Castle County.

“It’s important that we offer competitive wages, especially in this market, where there is a teacher shortage, and we also want to make sure that we keep our great teachers that we have,” he said.

He noted that with the additional 435 students in the district, about 50 additional teachers were added from the state. While the state covers 65 percent of that cost, the other 35 percent is furnished locally, which comes to about $1.3 million just for new teachers.

“We need to make sure that we’re covering that cost as we grow with new teachers because our revenue doesn’t go up as our expenses go up,” he continued.

For safety purposes, the district looks to add one state of Delaware constable on every campus, excluding high schools, as school resource officers are already in those buildings.

The district’s last successful referendum was in 2016, when voters approved a tax hike that supported building three new schools, renovating two existing properties and operating expenses.

Dr. Burrows noted that after that referendum passed, the state cut $2 million in 2017, which impacted the funds. To fulfill the other promises made to the community in the 2016 referendum, instructional technology took a hit, he said.

“We like to see that replenished because we’ve been very fortunate where our community has supported us with this. But some of our SMART boards are hitting 13 to 14 years, and we need to be able to have a replacement cycle on those because they’ve become important in the classroom, as an instructional item,” he said.

Around the state, districts are seeking additional funding for operating and capital costs. Some, like Sussex Tech, haven’t received state support. Others are hoping to win over voters; Indian River School District made its pitch for a capital referendum to support a new Sussex Central High, which comes after two defeated referendums earlier in the year that sought to build a new high school and make classroom additions at Indian River High School and Selbyville Middle School.

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