Indian River set for another district referendum Thursday

DAGSBORO — Thursday is a pivotal day in the 50-plus year history of the Indian River School District.

The school district is seeking passage of a major capital referendum a new Sussex Central High School with a 2,200-student capacity, which district officials say will adequately address excessive enrollment growth that has spawned overcrowding in most schools.

“Overall, we build one school, we solve the entire overcrowding in the north and we provide sufficient room for growth that we think will last for at least eight to 10 years,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele. “We only need one new school to impact all of the others. It’s very simple — you build one building and take care of everything else.”

If approved, the major capital improvement plan includes:

•Construction of a new Sussex Central High School;

•Relocation of Millsboro Middle School to the existing SCHS building;

•Conversion of existing Millsboro Middle School building into an elementary school.

A defeat would mark the third failed referendum in a span of about one year. Referendums held in February and May 2019 failed to pass.

“I said last year we were at a crucial point,” said Mr. Steele at a Jan. 29 public referendum meeting at Indian River High School. “Now we are at a critical point.”

Mark-Steele

About 20 members of the public were in the auditorium for one in a series of public presentations in the district’s informational campaign.

The need is due to continual enrollment growth, predominantly in the northern half of the district encompassing the greater Georgetown and Millsboro areas.

IRSD’s enrollment on Jan. 29 stood at 11,171 students, an increase of 129 from Sept. 30 unit count of 10,942.

Then Sept. 30 enrollment was reached six years ahead of the University of Delaware’s Unified School District Enrollment Projection of 10,957 for the 2025 school year.

Sussex Central High School, built for a 1,500-student capacity, has more than 1,800 students. Ten portable classroom units are being utilized on the SCHS campus and 22 “homeless” teachers at that high school must move to a classroom utilizing a cart.

Portables provide classroom space, but do not impact common areas such as cafeteria.

“Unless you see it, you just don’t understand how overcrowded it is,” Mr. Steele said.

Tax impact

The local share will be $58.4 million in the 60/40 state/local ratio.

Passage of the referendum will result in a maximum possible tax increase of $63.24 for the average district property owner. This increase will be phased in over three years in the 20-year bond period. The amount will decrease commencing with the fourth year.

Mr. Steele pointed out in his presentation that the district calculates the local tax impact at a 5 percent bond rate, which equates to 28 cents per $100 of assessed property value. Mr. Steele and district officials are fairly confident it will be much lower, possibly around 2.88 percent, which equates to 22 cents per $100 of assessed value, and ultimately less cost to taxpayers.

Additionally, IRSD is scheduled to retire seven construction bonds during the next five years.

According to Mr. Steele, Tammy Smith, the district’s business director who came to IRSD from the state auditor’s office, pointed out that Indian River is the only district paying off debt faster than it is borrowing.

Wealthy but not

At present, one penny of tax in the IRSD generates about $167,000.

“We are considered a wealthy district even though 56 percent of the kids that attend are people who live in our district and are socioeconomic disadvantaged. The beach areas bring in a lot of money,” said Mr. Steele. “The north is growing faster than the south. A lot of seniors have moved into the southern area. And it’s families in the north.”

Amid two referendum defeats in 2019, to address overcrowding, the district:

• Installed 10 portable classrooms at SCHS and two at North Georgetown Elementary;

• Closed the Georgetown Kindergarten Center, freeing up space at Georgetown Middle School;

• Implemented a three-tiered busing system.

Last year, the district signed a lease for five two-unit portables. Two single units were donated free from Cape Henlopen, costing the district only moving and set-up expenses. The total cost was $424,000, plus $25,000 for security fencing at SCHS. The monthly lease for the five rental units is $10,600.

Referendum defeat

If the referendum does not pass, Mr. Steele said:

• Overcrowding will worsen, adversely affecting educational environment;

• More portable classrooms will be needed;

• District reserves will be depleted due to high cost of renting portable classrooms;

• District attendance boundaries may be redrawn, forcing students living in the northern feeder patterns to attend schools in the district’s southern end.

“If we don’t pass this referendum, we’re going to have to move kids from the north to the south,” said Mr. Steele, noting increased ride time for bus students. “We do have a problem in this district. I’ve got 39 years here, and I can stand up here and tell you 11,000 kids isn’t too many kids for a school district to have. But 365 square miles, we’re too big. That is what kills us.”

Sussex Central High School would become the new home for Millsboro Middle School with passage of a major capital referendum supporting construction of a new high school. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

Development means more homes, and increased tax revenue. More homes also mean more families, some with school-age children.

“We get reports in my office from the county, and it seems like every two or three weeks, I get another report … another 225 homes,” said Mr. Steele. “Everybody knows the more houses, more units you build, how much taxes we get, it goes up. For us, our enrollment is going up. It helps us and hurts us. As long as both are going up, we’re fine. We don’t have to come back and say ‘’I’ve got to have a current expense next year.’”

“The town of Millsboro – the No. 1-fastest growing city in Sussex – they have approved permits for over 3,000 new homes for the next six or seven years,” said Mr. Steele, noting development in Georgetown, Angola and other areas within the school district.

“Growth is not slowing down. All we can do is take whatever kid that walks in our door and lives in our district, and we have to educate them. And that’s what we do, and we do it well. And we’ll continue to do that well. But we’ve come to a point where we need help. Everybody wants to come live in our district. Your property taxes are low. You have no sales tax. Developers love it because there are no impact fees. That is the perfect storm, folks.”

“As superintendents we have lobbied our legislators to look at impact fees, because Sussex County is the only county in Delaware that doesn’t have them,” said Mr. Steele. “But unfortunately, that’s a decision that me or my school board … we have no control over.”

From the audience

Audience questions spurred brief discussion on a split schedule, online instruction and Gov. John Carney’s budget proposal to allocate $50 million for a new elementary school in Wilmington and other upgrades in the Christina School District with no referendum or local share.

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)

Mr. Steele responded to Gov. Carney’s recommendation.

“That’s wrong,” Mr. Steele said. “If that was a special needs school like Howard T. Ennis or the Cape Consortium, I would say absolutely build the school. But that is a public elementary school. Those people should have to do what you have to do. And I will fight that. I know my other colleagues are not happy about this because that is setting a very bad precedent.”

“Now, three ago the state went through a financial hiccup and we had to give $2 million back to state each year. Guess what? We’re still giving $2 million back to the state every year. You know what that cost this district? This year it cost us five administrators, 13 teachers total, and over $560,000. That was our giveback,” said Mr. Steele. “But he (Gov. Carney) is going to build a new school, a public school in a district that should go out for referendum just like we’re having to do. But instead he continues to take our $2 million a year. All I am saying is, it is an election year.”

Voting

Voting Thursday is from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. at the following local polling places: East Millsboro Elementary School, Georgetown Elementary School, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary School, Lord Baltimore Elementary School and Selbyville Middle School.

District residents who are U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age are eligible to vote.

In the event of inclement weather, the referendum will be held on Feb. 20.