Second IR schools referendum fails by 65 votes

SELBYVILLE — More than 9,000 voters in the Indian River School District spoke at the polls Tuesday.

The message sent by the voting majority — by a 65-vote margin — was rejection of a second major capital improvement referendum this year that called for a local debt service tax increase.

The tax would have supported a new 2,200-student Sussex Central High School, eight additional classrooms at Indian River High School and a four-classroom addition at Selbyville Middle School.

The referendum failed by 4,643 to 4,578.

“The defeat of the referendum is a serious blow to the Indian River School District,” IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele said Tuesday night.

School district officials have expressed a need for additional classroom space to address a substantial and ongoing increase in the district’s overall student enrollment.

IRSD’s “official” enrollment as of the Sept. 30 count was is 10,697 students in grades PreK-12 and it has since increased. This represents an increase of 1,826 students since 2011.

“We are faced with an anticipated enrollment growth of more than 1,700 students in the next six years and there is no guarantee the state of Delaware will approve funding for these construction projects in the future,” Mr. Steele said. “As a result, we may not be able to host another major capital improvement referendum for several years.”

“The vote has been taken and we’ll have to plan to move on,” said IRSD board member Jim Hudson. “We’ve got to come up with a plan on how we are going to attack it.”

In its campaign, district officials called the referendum proposal the most equitable solution to overcrowding issues, one that would save taxpayers millions of dollars over previous proposals considered by the IRSD board of education.

The district is already eyeing modular classroom units at several school sites as temporary relief for major overcrowding.

At its March 25 meeting, the school board voted 9-0 to pursue six portable units equating to a dozen classrooms – eight at Sussex Central High School, and two each at North Georgetown Elementary School and Selbyville Middle School. More portables will now likely be needed.

“The district has no choice but to utilize portable classrooms to alleviate overcrowding in our schools. We project the need for about 22 portables across the district in the next five years,” said Mr. Steele.

The cost for each unit (two classrooms) for a mandated 60-month lease is projected to be $139,530.

“The cost of portable classrooms is astronomical, and these units must be funded through our operating budget,” said Mr. Steele. “This will likely necessitate the need for a current expense referendum sooner than we expected. However, the district respects the democratic process and will examine all possible options to keep our students safe and provide them with the best learning environment possible.”

The May 7 referendum request did not include the current expense tax hike that was defeated along with the major capital pitch in February.

On Feb. 5, voters by a 3,866-to-3,202 margin rejected the $158.1 million major capital improvement project that carried a 40-percent $63.4 million local share. The current expense request for a 9-cent increase was defeated by a 3,836-to-3,124 tally.

The referendum would have meant a maximum possible tax increase of $68.96 for the average district property owner. This increase was to be phased in over a four-year period.

Construction of the new Sussex Central High School would have allowed the district to renovate and repurpose two existing school buildings. Millsboro Middle School would move into the existing Sussex Central High School building, with Millsboro Middle School repurposed as an elementary school.

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