For Indian River school board, no doesn’t mean no

GEORGETOWN — With Delaware Department of Education’s blessing, New Year 2020 at some point will put another major capital improvement referendum before Indian River School District voters.

Precisely what the referendum will encompass remains to be seen, and the IRSD school board at its June 24 meeting took the official step in approving the preliminary process that includes documentation and certificates of necessity to meet a late August deadline.

“We need to prepare documents,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele.
The board’s vote to proceed was 9-0, with board member Gerald Peden absent.

Space, in the district’s case lack of, school capacity issues and overcrowding are the catalysts in the district’s efforts to address enrollment growth.
The district already has two strikes against it with a pair of referendum defeats this year.

The two-pronged referendum on Feb. 5 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.
The current expense request for a 9-cent increase met defeat by a 3,836 to 3,124 tally.

A major capital only referendum in early May was closer, failing by 65 votes.
“To me it’s pretty straightforward … because we need a new building,” said school board member Dr. Donald Hattier. “Everything we do between now and the next three to five years that we don’t have that is just going to be compounded five years down the road, and it’s going to be worse.”
‘We need to move forward,” added board member Jim Hudson.

The district’s next steps are to identify what the third referendum request will include.
Mr. Steele updated the board that some cost models have changed in the formula at the Department of Education.

School board vice president Rodney Layfield suggested the board and district seriously consider re-evaluating its request and possibly removing something “and go back to the taxpayers with a little bit less.”
“The public has spoken twice, very close each time,” said Mr. Layfield.
“I respect what you’re saying but we need more, not less,” said Mr. Hudson.
“You can’t put a Band-Aid on something that needs surgery.”

To address the immediate need for more classrooms, the district is making plans for modular units at North Georgetown Elementary and Sussex Central High School. Modular leasing through the state is very expensive and local funds, not state monies, are used.

Cape Henlopen School District is offering to give IRSD two single classroom units it owns. The only cost to IRSD is moving them from Shields Elementary School in Lewes to Sussex Central High School. That price is $16,700.

Classroom space is also being created at several schools by using a portion of school library/media centers.
Meanwhile, the school district is also analyzing what approach it should take in taking its need and request to the public for a third time.

Mr. Steele said the district needs to “take a look at PR (public relations) we are putting out. I think we always look for the best bang for the buck.
“We look for the best thing we can do to give us the space we need at the cheapest rate for taxpayers.”

A referendum, of course, will be a moot point if the state Department of Education does not issue a CN (certificate of necessity).
“I can’t say that DOE would accept,” said Mr. Steele. “I really don’t know.”
Prevailing wage

Mr. Layfield also said the cost for any project is increased significantly by prevailing wage, which must be paid on new state-funded construction projects costing more than $500,000.
Delaware’s Department of Labor establishes and enforces the payment of wage rates for laborers and mechanics working on state-funded construction projects.

“We have to pay prevailing wage. It pushes our cost up 15 to 20 percent,” said Mr. Layfield. “What a waste of money that is.”

School taxes owed
School board member James Fritz again brought up the amount of unpaid school taxes owed to the IRSD. Sussex County collects taxes, both county and school district.
“Even though tax receipts may be increasing, the last number that was owed to the IR school district in unpaid property taxes was $3.9 million.

And that’s a couple months ago. My guess with interest it is higher. That number is not going down,” said Mr. Fritz.
“That money is money that the county is not going after, as a conscious effort on the county’s part to not go after that money. Their feeling is that they collect basically 90 percent. It’s not worth the time or money to go after the 10 percent they don’t collect.”

“We know that the county basically gets essentially nothing for collecting the taxes,” Dr. Hattier said. “If they aggressively collect, they have a cost involved … and they don’t get any of the proceeds from collection, per say.”

“That is why there is no motivation on their end,” Mr. Fritz said. “Unless you’re dying … you want to sell your house or you want to refinance, the county has no way of collecting that unpaid tax unless you do one of those three things.”
“But is that a county issue, then?” Dr. Hattier asked.
“It’s a county issue,” said Mr. Fritz.
“You don’t think it’s a state issue?” Dr. Hattier asked.
“No, because it is done by the county,” Mr. Fritz replied.
“I think a comparison is what we need to look at,” said Mr. Layfield. “I’ve always heard that the county did a pretty good job of collecting taxes.”
“They do,” Mr. Fritz said. “But we’re owed $3.9 million. Ours dates back to 1984.”

“Even considering what we are trying to do with building here – no disrespect to $3.9 million, but that’s not going to be sufficient to cover more than a few classrooms,” said Dr. Hattier.
“We still need the other part. Again, it is a ton of cash but given the scope of the project …”

Mr. Steele said IRSD is not alone. “We’re about $3.9 million,” he said. “I can tell you all the other school districts are in the same boat.”
Following the July 1 reorganizational meeting, IRSD school board’s next regular meeting is July 24, at 7 p.m. at Indian River High School.

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