Indian River School District will face growing pains until new school is built

GEORGETOWN — Overwhelming referendum passage on Feb. 13 is not an immediate cure for Indian River School District’s growing pains.

If the projected schedule holds true, it will be four years — the 2023-24 school year — before doors open at new Sussex Central High School, which is the new construction linchpin in the district’s master plan to address progressive enrollment growth and building overcrowding.

“I want to personally congratulate our district for working together to pass the referendum. The new plan that you guys put together was obviously the best one that was presented to the public,” said J.R. Emanuele, president of the Indian River Education Association at the Feb. 24 board of education meeting. “Everybody looks forward to what is to come. The suggestion that I do have is that I am getting a lot of questions from employees and some people in the community saying, ‘What do we do in the meantime? What are we doing for the next five years? Because the problem just doesn’t go away with the referendum passing. It’s still five years until that school opens.”

Actually, if all goes well the timeframe is four years, for the new 2,200-student Sussex Central High School to open, the current SCHS building to be the new home for Millsboro Middle School, and the existing middle school building in Millsboro to transform into another elementary school.

Before this all happens, the district still faces reality of increasing enrollment and overcrowding. A quarter of its schools are overcapacity and several more are near 100-percent capacity.

A series of options are under consideration. It may mean additional portable classroom units, shifting of some students in attendance zones and schedule tweaking at Sussex Central High School, whose enrollment as of Feb. 19 was 1,823 students – at 121.5 percent capacity.

Ten portable classroom units – four doubles and two singles – are currently on the SCHS campus and there might be a need for another a year or so. That helps solve classroom seating issues, but not common area congestion.

Mark-Steele

“Our biggest problem there in all common areas. We’re trying to look at models to see if we can split schedules … so you have half as many kids in the hallways as possible. I don’t know if it is possible but we’re going to look at it to see,” said Superintendent Mark Steele. “We also want to look at possibly adding another lunch period. It’s going to have to be an earlier lunch. Feasibly, we’re going to have to do that. We are really running out of options.”

North Georgetown Elementary, overcapacity at 102.7 percent, currently has one double classroom unit on school grounds. District officials are holding off on decisions about additional trailers until school choice for 2020-21 is finalized. The school board did not act on the 203 choice applications at the Feb. 24 meeting, opting to put them all on the wait list.

“One thing we will do and the reason we didn’t want to move forward is we want to take a look at what we have. In the Georgetown area, sometimes you have kids that go back and forth between North (Georgetown) and East (Millsboro), depending on where their parents work, and daycare and whatnot,” Mr. Steele said. “We want to examine that first to see if there is going to be enough draw off that North that would maybe we would not have to do that trailer next year.”

“This is a case where school choice could help us, not bringing in people from outside the district,” said Mr. Steele. “But if we had kids at one high school who wanted to go to another, if we’re not over 95 percent, any little bit of draw we could get with moving internally, that could help. We certainly will look at that, as long as we stay within our school choice policy.”

A much better districtwide snapshot is expected in April.

“Then, most of our kindergarten registration will be done. We’ll know what our incoming kindergarten class looks like. Believe it or not, that is probably one of the biggest drivers that we have to use because we know whatever we have is going to drive us for the next 12 years,” said Mr. Steele.

With the transition of the district’s alternative school program to home schools, G.W. Carver Academy building in Frankford figures to be a piece in the puzzle. It could address capacity issues at East Millsboro Elementary, which was at 104.3 percent capacity in late February.

“We’re looking outside the box. We have room at G.W. Carver. Some thoughts are to move kindergarten from East Millsboro to Carver building for a couple years until we get the school built, if we need to. That would probably buy 150 seats at East Millsboro.,” said Mr. Steele.

Based on several models, Mr. Steele has projected the district’s total enrollment will hit 12,137 by 2024. The district’s “official” Sept. 30 snapshot count in 2019 was 10,942. By late January 2020, enrollment had risen to 11,171.

Residential growth is booming in the district’s northern and southern portions. The Georgetown/Millsboro area in the north is experiencing the most student/family residential growth.

“You don’t want to draw lines too soon because with all of the building you have no idea what you’re going to get. In the south some of the developments we have, the vast majority of people in those developments are senior citizens that have no kids,” said Mr. Steele. “In the north end … the nice part about it is we’re not seeing a house here and a house there. You’re seeing developments. When we would draw those lines it’s not going to be a humongous shift.”

The district has already set in motion the initial post-referendum passage process.

“One thing that we’re trying to get out of the chute fast, the RFP (Request For Proposals) will be coming out about March 9. That’s for the architectural firm,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele. “We’ll make that selection in April and begin the planning process July 1. That’s when our money comes in. We may even start it before hand and front-load the money because obviously we want to expedite this as fast as possible.”

The district plans to do everything in its power to limit the leasing of portables, which cost the district $424,000 this year.

“We’re going to try to nickel and dime as much as we can, to save the money so we don’t have to utilize a lot of money in leases. We’ll negotiate lease terms in anything else we do; we’re not going to want to go five years. We’re going to try to negotiate, if they will. That’s a good question. We may have to go to a different company if they don’t,” Mr. Steele said. “We’re going to try to squeeze through as much as we can in the next four years until that school is finished. We know once it is finished, then the relief factor is humongous on the north end.”

Referendum recap

With final absentee ballots, the final tally of the Feb. 13 referendum changed a bit from the unofficial verdict given after polls closed.

Confirmed by the Sussex County Department of Elections and signed off by Delaware Department of Education Secretary Dr. Susan Bunting, the vote was: 7,556 for and 4,537 against. The 12,093 total votes fell 225 short of the district record for referendum voter turnout.

Mr. Steele applauded the overall team effort in securing the referendum passage.

“Everybody in this district from the northernmost part to southern to east part to the west came together to support something that was important for our students. Thank you, parents, supporters. That was a big win to get this referendum pushed through,” said Mr. Steele, who applauded the effort by the IREA. “I can tell you their help was invaluable.”

“When we were taking the calls from the folks who were manning the polls, we started with Long Neck (Elementary),” said Mr. Steele. “We not only won all six voting sites, but we actually won all 20 voting machines. I don’t know if that has ever happened; I’d say that has got to be a record of some sort.”