Longtime IRSD board members honored

Indian River School District board of education president Rodney Layfield, right, presents a gavel to longtime school board member Charles Bireley during a recognition segment at the board’s Monday meeting. Mr. Bireley served a total of 43 years on the IRSD school board, including 20 as board president. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

DAGSBORO — In attendance at Monday’s Indian River School District board of education meeting were Charles Bireley, Jim Fritz, James Hudson and Mark Steele.

On this special occasion, they were seated in the Indian River High School auditorium, a stone’s throw from the stage where, several months ago, they sat as board of education members and top-level administration.

Monday, the foursome garnered the spotlight, recipients of tributes for service and dedication to the IRSD.

Mr. Fritz and Mr. Hudson both served eight years on the school board, and Mr. Bireley — honored with a standing ovation — was recognized for 43 years of board of education service, from 1974-89 and 1992-2020.

Mr. Steele, whose 39-year career with the IRSD began as a teacher in 1981, held positions of assistant principal, building principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent. He retired in June, having served as superintendent from 2017-20.

“If I had to start all over again, I’d start at the same place where I started 39 years ago,” said Mr. Steele. “I am very appreciative. I will always be a strong supporter of this school district.”

Mark Steele, whose 39-year career with the Indian River School District encompassed teaching and then building/district administration, was honored at the Monday meeting. Mr. Steele retired this past summer, after serving as district superintendent from 2017-20. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

Current IRSD Superintendent Dr. Jay Owens showed his appreciation for Mr. Steele.

“Personally, Mr. Steele, I want to thank you (for) taking me under your wing as a young administrator when I first took over as Sussex Central (High School)’s principal. You helped me tremendously during that time,” he said. “As I transitioned to the district office, you were a tremendous support system, a role model for me on how to handle situations in the district. I consider you not only a tremendous colleague for many years but a very good friend, as well.”

In the audience for the tribute ceremony was Mr. Steele’s wife, Linda Milutin Steele. “This,” said Mr. Steele, “is the first board meeting she has ever attended.”

Mr. Fritz served on several committees, including Buildings & Grounds and Curriculum, where he served as chair.

Dr. Owens acknowledged Mr. Fritz for bringing the “teacher perspective and business perspective” to the district’s 10-member governing board.

“I know that helped me,” said Dr. Owens.

Like Mr. Fritz, Mr. Hudson was on the school board from 2012-20. He served one year as board president. During his tenure, Mr. Hudson also was chair of the district’s Curriculum Committee.

“I admired his skill and ability with helping us navigate through various situations,” said Dr. Owens, who recognized Mr. Hudson for his “leadership and tremendous” advice for the school district.

Mr. Bireley, whose 43 years may be the longest ever in Delaware history, served on numerous committees. Chosen by colleagues, he was board president for 20 years and vice president for eight years.

Among his parting tributes was a gavel, presented by IRSD school board President Rodney Layfield. The gavel that Mr. Bireley used for meetings remains.

“So even though you are gone, your legacy is going to continue with this board,” said Mr. Layfield. “Every time we open or close the meeting and use this gavel, it’s Charlie’s gavel.”

Mr. Bireley, whose board term ended in late July, admitted that the first four to five weeks after he stepped down was dramatically different.

“I do love the Indian River School District, and I thank every one of you for coming tonight,” said Mr. Bireley.

Dr. John Marinucci, executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association, said Mr. Bireley was “always a sounding board and voice of reason.” He acknowledged Mr. Bireley’s longevity and contributions to the Indian River district, as well as influence with the DSBA and other school boards.

“Many times, I heard stories from school members, saying, ‘What would Charlie do in a case like this?’” said Dr. Marinucci.

Mr. Layfield agreed.

“Before I came on the board of education, I think everybody knew old Charlie Bireley,” Mr. Layfield said. “Good, bad or indifferent, they knew old Charlie Bireley in this area.”

Mr. Bireley and Mr. Steele both received special tributes from the Delaware House of Representatives, signed by Downstate members of the state legislature.