Indian River mulls options to address enrollment growth

To deal with enrollment growth in the Indian River School District, portable units equating to 10 classrooms are located on the campus of Sussex Central High School. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

DAGSBORO – Amid increasing enrollment growth and associated growing pains, Indian River School District Superintendent Mark Steele says the district is at a pivotal crossroad.

With fingers crossed for public approval of a third major capital improvement referendum try set for February 2020, Mr. Steele says the district has three options.

One: pass the referendum for a new high school.

Two: increase the number of portable classrooms.

And the third option, which Mr. Steele says would be highly unpopular, is to redraw school boundaries to address overcapacity issues. That would result in shifting some students from the northern half of the district to schools in the south at lesser enrollment capacities.

“There are a lot of ramifications when you start moving kids and boundaries,” said Mr. Steele, in a major capital improvement update to the board of education at its Nov. 25 meeting. “Rest assured you all will receive a lot of phone calls.”

“It is just a whole heck of a lot easier in my mind to just go out and pass the referendum. That is the best viable option we have, and in the long run the cheapest,” said Mr. Steele.

In February and May 2019, voters rejected referendums seeking a new 2,200-student Sussex Central High School and classroom additions at Indian River High School and Selbyville Middle School.

This third attempt is only for a new Sussex Central High School. That was the only certificate of necessity granted by the Delaware Department of Education. IRSD’s CN requests for additional classrooms were denied by the DOE.

Sussex County Department of Elections has approved Thursday, Feb. 13 for the referendum. Thursday, Feb. 20 is reserved as a makeup date if there is inclement weather Feb. 13.

Campaign plans are to inform the community and public on why referendum passage is vital, Mr. Steele said.

“We need to make sure they understand the ramifications if this does not pass. It is not going to be an easy option. We’re going to be forced to make some decisions that aren’t going to be popular. I don’t want to paint it pretty because it’s not going to be,” said Mr. Steele. “We have got to pull together to pass this referendum. It is extremely urgent that we do it and we move on with the building process.”

With referendum approval, a new 2,200 Sussex Central High School will be built, the current SCHS will be utilized as a middle school and Millsboro Middle School converted into an elementary school.

Total cost of the major capital high school project is $146,094,000. That includes $87,656,300 in state money and $58,437,00 local in the 60/40 ratio.

The tax increase has not yet been finalized. “We’re still crunching those numbers,” said IRSD spokesman David Maull before the Thanksgiving holiday break.

At the Nov. 25 meeting, Indian River Education Association representative Linda Hockman reiterated the IREA’s full support for the referendum.

Mr. Steele says is the time is right for referendum, noting several years down the road looms the closure of bonds on previous district projects.

“I think the administration, teachers, community need to come together and take a look at where we are – and the cost of this referendum compared to the bonds that are going to be closing out in five or six years,” said Mr. Steele. “It is a perfect opportunity to pass the referendum and to have the tax money for debt service on our taxpayers to decrease even before the school is finished being built.”

“This is a very advantageous time to do this because we have old 20-year construction bonds that we’re paying off, that we are retiring,” said Mr. Maull. “So, the debt service impact of this, it is going to be advantageous to the taxpayers. While we are going to have to raise taxes to pay for the new high school, we’re also retiring some old bonds that is going to keep the tax increase related to the new high school down. The amount that we have to request isn’t going to be as much because. We are retiring some old bonds.”

Referendum defeat will increase the district’s need for portable classroom units, which are leased from the state over a five-year lease. Cost for leasing comes from operational funds.

“The portables at Sussex Central and North Georgetown are costing the district over $400,000 this year,” said Mr. Maul.

Currently, IRSD is using seven modular units. Six are on the SCHS campus – four double classroom units and two single classroom units the IRSD obtained at no cost from the Cape Henlopen School District – for a total of 10 classrooms.

Another double classroom unit is located at North Georgetown Elementary School.

Additionally, there are set-up costs associated with portables. That includes fire alarm systems, data cables, ADA ramps (which are rented), sidewalks and electrical service.

“There were a lot of additional expenditures,” said Joe Booth, IRSD Supervisor of Buildings and Grounds.

The district has allocated about $26,000 from school security funding for fencing to encompass the portables at SCHS. The modular unit at North Georgetown Elementary was placed inside existing fencing, Mr. Booth said.

“I have done a pretty comprehensive study and looking just with the first group going through, I can assure you that if we go this method – our referendum does not pass and we have to increase portables through 2025-26 – we will have to come back for a current expense referendum in two to three years,” said Mr. Steele. “That will be simply to pay the leases on the number of trailers we have.”

Mr. Steele said the IRSD intends to take the district’s case to state legislators to try to get “some financial support somewhere along the line, hopefully in the area of impact fees in Sussex County in the future to help us a little bit. I know our colleagues in Kent County and New Castle County have the opportunity to have those funds. I know for a fact Caesar Rodney just pulled some of those funds to finish a renovation. It’s nice to have that pocket of money if you need it.”

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