Progress Report: Two years into CR School District referendum projects

 

A worker spreads cement on the roof of Fifer Middle School in Camden on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

CAMDEN — In 2015, Caesar Rodney School District passed its $27.8 million referendum to help with operation and improvement costs. This October, it’ll be officially two years since the measure passed a vote with 1,935 district residents for and 1,171 against. The district broke down its referendum goals into four categories with specific projects to increase capacity, improve learning spaces, addressing aging buildings and infrastructure and improving athletic facilities — the bigger projects being the construction of a new elementary school and several large additions to Caesar Rodney High School.

District superintendent Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald said they’re still targeting completion of all their referendum projects by the start of the 2020 school year — how far have they come already?

“The addition of a wing with four classrooms to J. Ralph McIlvaine Elementary School is completed and ready to go for the start of school,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “Roofing work at Fifer Middle School and Caesar Rodney High School is also underway. The design and plans for an addition of a ninth grade academy at the high school are nearing final approval and the architect just presented the preliminary plans for the new elementary school to the school board last Tuesday. So, things are moving forward.”

Dr. Fitzgerald said the district is currently moving the plans for the new elementary school forward and seeking approval with various state agencies.

The ninth grade academy that will include 20 new classrooms is nearly through the planning and development stage, construction is expected to begin sometime this school year once state funds are received.

The state agreed in 2015 to pair the referendum funding with an additional $59.1 million, bringing the total amount to $86.9 million, paid out incrementally. Despite the state’s tight purse strings this financial year, Dr. Fitzgerald said funding for the projects has continued as agreed.

“State funding comes through the annual bond bill and is spread out over three years,” he said. “Even with the state’s budgetary issues, the legislature has been able to support capital projects throughout the state.”

Infrastructure improvements, such as the roof repair at the middle and high schools, have also been underway and are being done in stages, said Dr. Fitzgerald. Referendum funds have also helped stanch staffing and program cuts. Due to a reduced operating budget before the referendum successfully passed, the district had to cut 19 staff positions, including math, reading and technology teachers; reduce summer school opportunities and after-school help; and freeze building and operational budgets since 2008.

“The passage of the referendum allowed the district to continue moving forward with those programs and not cut positions,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “The district continues to grow in numbers. Both of our middle schools have over 850 students, but we won’t have more definitive numbers until after the September 30th count.”

District residents started seeing a property tax increase resulting from the referendum after July 2016. The school tax rate for district residents was $1.235 per $100 of property tax.

For a home assessed at $48,000 ($200,000 market value), the taxpayer’s increase amounts to $273 per year. Residents will continue to pay an elevated tax rate until 2021, when the referendum taxes are schedule to drop back off.

The referendum was broken into two components — an increase of 41 cents for operating needs and 16 cents for debt service related to new capital projects.

According to the state’s Department of Education data, Caesar Rodney School district spent $11,185 per student for the 2015-2016 school year, lower than both the Kent County average ($12,546) and state average ($13,610).

The district now has an enrollment of 7,323 students, up from their 7,221 in 2016.

With about three years left in their time line, the most ambitious of the district’s projects still lie ahead. Dr. Fitzgerald said the school district’s priority remains proceeding diligently while being the best steward it can of the taxpayer’s dollars.

“Being involved in the district’s previous renovation and construction projects over the last eleven years, I have found that nothing is built or is ready as quickly as you want, hope and sometimes need — except perhaps this year’s McIlvaine project,” he said.

“However, we not only want buildings that are well designed, and well-built, we want them to stand the test of time. Our community expects quality and our goal is to give it to them and spend their money wisely.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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