Sussex Tech ROTC program to be discontinued

Sussex Technical School District Superintendent Stephen Guthrie, left, updates the school board on the lack of the JROTC instructor candidates for next year, and his recommendation that school’s JROTC program be discontinued following the current school year. At right is school board president Warren Reid. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN — There is enough student interest at Sussex Tech High School.

But nothing in the way of instructors.

With that backdrop and the district facing several deadlines, Sussex Tech Superintendent Stephen Guthrie announced Monday night the district will begin the process of discontinuing its Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, effective at the end of the school year.

“I would like to give you hope that there is something coming. But as much as we advocated for it and as much as we heard from the public, and as much as we have tried to find an instructor, I can’t offer any hope. If there is nobody there, I can’t offer that anybody is coming,” said Mr. Guthrie during the board of education meeting. “We need both a non-commissioned and a commissioned officer. We have followed up on the all the leads. As of today, there is nobody.”

“It is out of our hands … to decide if it stays or goes,” said Sussex Tech Board of Education President Warren Reid.

The district will begin sending notification to students chosen in this year’s lottery and current underclassmen in Tech’s Army JROTC program, accompanied by a press release, Mr. Guthrie said.

“Will that press release say the Army has chosen to close down the ROTC program at Sussex Tech, because it isn’t Sussex Tech’s school board?” said Mr. Reid. “I am not taking the heat. I took the heat leading up to the last meeting. This is not our decision and I want to make that painfully aware that we are not making the decision to close it down.”

“We have no qualified instructors,” said Mr. Guthrie. “That is the reason.”

Tech’s JROTC program, currently about 110 cadets from grades 9-12, is down to one instructor, Maj. Ben Jester, who is retiring after this school year. The program’s other instructor, 1st Sgt. Timothy Spence, resigned in February amid uncertainty of the program’s future to pursue other employment opportunities.

That future status of Tech’s JROTC program surfaced in January when school officials learned that Tech’s work-based learning initiative and JROTC’s requirements of cadets may not mesh.

The work-based learning initiative, part of the district’s vocational/technical education commitment in its revised strategic plan, requires students to leave the school campus part of the school day. That does not adhere to JROTC protocol, which requires JROTC access to cadets daily during the school day.

At the January school board meeting, Maj. Jester recommended closure of the JROTC program.

Mr. Guthrie said in mid-February school officials had “resolved key student scheduling issues which had been a potential obstacle.”

For about six weeks, Sussex Tech advertised in seeking two U.S. Army JROTC instructors for the 2020-21 school year — a commissioned instructor and a non-commissioned instructor.

Mr. Guthrie said Dr. John Sell, Sussex Tech’s Director of Support Services, checked with the 4th Brigade, U.S. Army Cadet Command “every other day or very frequently. We have gotten inquiries from people. We have gotten people who have given us names. We say the same thing, ‘Here is the website where you have to go.’ I have gotten legislators that have written me and said, ‘What can we do to help?’”

As Monday, no candidates were in the interview/hiring pipeline.

“We have not received any word from the 4th Brigade that anybody is interested,” Mr. Guthrie said. “It is not just Sussex Tech and it’s not just Sussex County. There is nobody who has indicated an interest in Army JROTC in Delaware.”

“We have got students, just no instructors,” said Mr. Reid.

In addition to notifying students, Tech faces a second deadline for the proper disposition of more than $100,000 worth of U.S. Army equipment and materials, which is federal property.

Mr. Guthrie noted there are strict procedures for the return of the equipment to the United States government, “which one of our retiring instructors has agreed to handle if necessary. Waiting too long would mean this process would be in the hands of Sussex Tech staff with no expertise in these complex regulations and procedures. That has to be transferred to the proper depositories.”

With closure of the program, district staff needs to schedule replacement courses for JROTC cadets for the fall semester of school year 2020-21.

“Waiting too long means course requests for that slot may not be able to be accommodated,” said Mr. Guthrie.

“Additionally, current cadets should have sufficient time to be allowed to choose to return to their home districts, which may offer JROTC to complete their training. Applicants for next year’s freshman class are currently considering whether to accept admission to Sussex Tech for next year. We want to make sure that they have all the information they need to make that decision.”

“It is a shame,” said Sussex Tech board member Adele Jones. “But I mean if we don’t have an instructor, we can’t have a program.”

“It is not a program within our control. it is a program that requires the JROTC division to give us the names of qualified instructors from which we would have a full interview. We have nobody to interview,” said Mr. Guthrie. “I think it is in the best interest of our students and our program just to announce that we have to discontinue it.”