Sussex Tech seeks support for building new school

If approval for a new high school is granted, Sussex Technical School District’s plan is to demolish the current building. ( Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN — Sussex Technical School District is seeking Delaware Department of Education’s approval and legislative support in its plans for a new high school in its vocational/technical educational renaissance.

“We want to provide an academic environment that is conducive to technology education,” said Sussex Tech Superintendent Stephen Guthrie.

The school district last week unveiled plans to seek DOE’s blessing for an estimated 313,000 square-foot building on a wooded portion of land that’s part of the Sussex Tech campus on U.S. 9 between Laurel and Georgetown.

The estimated $150.5 million project is the least expensive of three options weighed by the Sussex Tech board of education.

The school district faces escalating expenses for maintenance for its aging buildings, security upgrades and the need to improve traffic flow along U.S. 9 and on its campus, according to a five-month independent review by an architectural and engineering firm.

“I do want to emphasize; no one here is looking for the Taj Mahal; no grand entrance and stairwells and chandeliers. We are looking for a basic technical school,” said Mr. Guthrie. “That’s what the board wants. That is what I want.”

Certificates of necessity and required documentation will be submitted to the state this week to meet the Aug. 31 deadline.

Best-case scenario, Mr. Guthrie says, would be DOE approval is granted, funding approved and next year (2020-21) the project would be in design, followed by approximately three years of construction.

In a semi-perfect situation, the new school would open in August of 2024, Mr. Guthrie said.

In all probability, a legislative delegation from Sussex County would take the request to the General Assembly.

The school board also considered two other options:

•Renovating only the oldest parts of the complex and continuing patchwork repairs to the newer wings, at a cost of $190.2 million; and

•Renovating the entire school complex, at a cost of $177.6 million.

“I have heard their proposal. I have looked at it,” said State Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown. “It is less expensive to build a complete new school than to work in phases, and rehab some of what is there that is not very energy efficient, and not very safe for the students when we are talking about a safe school environment.

Ruth Briggs King

“I can understand the reasoning for it, but naturally I am going to be waiting to hear what the public chimes in on it.”

State Rep. Tim Dukes, R-Laurel, hopes to tour the current high school facility and hopes the public will have that opportunity as well.

“I think it be important for people to not say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to put money into a tech school,’ but really see what the need is. Then, people can let their legislators know how they want them to vote. I think that is the best way,” said Rep. Dukes. “I’m not going into this with already having formed an opinion. I really want to wait and see and probably do an exclusive tour and look at some of the areas of the building.”

Rep. Dukes said he believes there are “some things that possibly can be changed with the original number and cut some money out of that. So, there are a lot of variables at this point.”

The board of education voted unanimously to pursue the option of an entirely new school, at a cost of $150.5 million, at its Aug. 12 meeting.

“We take saving taxpayers’ money seriously because we all pay taxes in Sussex County,” said Sussex Tech board of education President Warren Reid. “After the data was presented to us in three options, the new school is the option that saves taxpayers the most. It is the most responsible choice for the future of our students and the workforce in Sussex County. This will not be an extravagant building, just what we need to serve our high school and adult education students.”

In 2013, Sussex Tech made an ill-fated pitch for a new school, estimated at that time to be between $150 million and $200 million.

Sussex Tech High School currently has about 1,250 enrolled students. High school students each choose one of 17 technical areas as their educational focus.

Unlike other schools, it also serves about 2,800 adult education students in the evenings. They attend class at night to complete their high school diplomas, take ESL classes or complete apprenticeship training programs in fields like welding, plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and automotive technologies.

Under Sussex Tech’s plan, the current high school would be demolished, and space possibly utilized for athletic fields and parking. “There is no reason for it. It’s expensive to keep. All of that is in price,” Mr. Guthrie said.

Behind the scenes

The main high school building was constructed in stages. The oldest wing was built 59 years ago, in 1960; other sections were built in 1964, 1970, 1995, 2000 and 2008.

There are also more than 20 outbuildings on campus, mostly used by technical areas and specialty classrooms, such as driver’s education, JROTC, band and chorus. The JROTC building is 55 years old, the auto tech building is 49 years old, and the auto body building is 44 years old.

Some classroom spaces are temporary structures still being used as classrooms 20 years later.

From the outside, the high school building looks fine. But behind the scenes, district officials say Sussex Tech has spent about $14 million over the last few years on maintenance and improvements alone — repairs to roofs, renovations of student career-technical areas, security installations and an HVAC overhaul, among other items.

“We’ve had these non-logical additions, sort of tacked on in different decades. We have almost six decades of building going on. Every once in a while, they change construction methods, and those constructions don’t marry well together in the same building,” said Mr. Guthrie.

“Instead of integrating the addition into the building, it was just a tack-on; separate HVAC, separate electrical. So, you have all of these wings and dead-ends throughout the building that don’t present a very good layout. It is 429,000 square feet. It is just too much.

“Ninety-plus exterior doors. Construction they used didn’t age well. We have foundation cracks, significant structural issues throughout the building. The pillars that support building are undersized. Those costs will rise as the campus continues to age. Our engineering consultant has concluded that renovation is only a Band-Aid solution — paying good money for what is only a temporary fix. We are answerable to Sussex County taxpayers, and it is neither right nor ethical to continue to sink their money into an inefficient building with outdated and wasteful mechanical systems that are expensive to operate.”

“The important thing here is, first of all, they have to get through the certificate of necessity,” Rep. Dukes said. “And there are some real issues, structurally with some of the roof systems that they have there.”

Sussex Technical School District is seeking approval to build a new high school on the campus property on U.S. 9. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe )

The independent review by consultant ABHA/BSA+A identified several pressing challenges beyond escalating maintenance costs. These include:

• the need for improved traffic circulation on campus, which would reduce twice-daily traffic snarls along U.S. 9 when school begins and lets out;

• the importance of security upgrades to ensure student and staff safety; and

• the necessity for improved, upgraded and flexible space for technical area classrooms to accommodate industry-standard equipment and technologies in future years.

Building a new school is the only option that sufficiently addresses all those issues, Mr. Reid said.

“Renovating does not begin to tackle the traffic issues that we hear complaints about daily, nor does it implement critical safety measures,” he said. “Our county deserves a career-technical school with these basic improvements to give our students a quality education, high school and adult learners alike.”

“It’s more wasteful to spend tax dollars than it is on a comprehensive solution to these problems,” said Mr. Guthrie. “If we don’t get some relief, we’re going to have a major mechanical failure that is going to impede our ability to give education to students. That is just the reality of it. We have cracks, structural issues we have to be address. That doesn’t mean the building is going fall down. What it means is we don’t have a safe environment for our students in the way that other districts provide it.”

The proposed site for the new school has already cleared the Preliminary Land Use Service (PLUS) process from a prior proposal several years ago.

Taxpayer pockets

If approved, the Sussex Tech project would be funded at a 60/40 percent state/county ratio.

Estimates from Sussex Tech indicate that the project would have a small effect on individual Sussex County taxpayers. As the only school district serving all Sussex County residents, Sussex Tech is supported by property taxes from county taxpayers, which spreads the individual impact across more people than in a traditional district.

The building project is estimated to cost the average homeowner about $38.13 at its peak in the third year, with costs decreasing every year after that. At its peak, this would equate to $3.18 per month for the average single-family homeowner.

“We believe that this is a responsible investment for the future of Sussex County’s workforce and economy,” said Sussex Tech school board vice president Greg Johnson. “Our high school students and adult learners will all benefit — which ultimately helps our businesses in hiring new employees with the right skills.”

The project has felt the bite of inflation, particularly the price of steel, as well as an increase this year in the state square-footage formula for school construction.

“When we first started this project it was $133 million …,” Mr. Guthrie said.

Impact on students

Building a new school will also have the least impact on students, Mr. Reid said.

Both renovation options would require moving students out of their current wings into temporary space. Renovating part of the complex, the most expensive option, would also take longer, meaning that some students would spend their entire high school career learning in temporary classrooms.

Stephen Guthrie

The costs for the renovation options are higher primarily due to the need to build temporary technical area classroom space, Mr. Guthrie noted. “It’s not as simple as buying a trailer for a traditional classroom. Those areas will need special buildings and infrastructure, such as utilities,” he said.

“I have listened to the public comment. Citizens are having a hard time understanding why new construction is less expensive by $20 million or $40 million depending on the option. The answer is $15 million of that has to do with relocating students. That’s the big piece. We have to relocate the students during the modernization. You can’t keep them there. Not only for classrooms but for tech centers as well. It just makes no logical sense … to spend money to set up and then tear down.”

Present and future

This year’s freshmen class totals 271, selected from 802 applicants —largest application class in history — through an independent lottery.

The new building design is for 1,600 students, which is Tech’s current capacity.

“We are hoping to have that cap lifted and get endorsement by the legislators to invite more students to attend,” said Mr. Guthrie. “We’d like to get to the point where we are back to 1,500, 1,550 in this building … and 1,600 in the new building.”

“And, of course, what we want to do is look at our regular districts and discuss with them to see what we think that that percentage should be,” Rep. Briggs King said. “It was always a little bit controlled but we have had so much more growth, and the number that we had that worked 10 years ago is probably not a fair number to look at the enrollment in our high schools, particularly Sussex Central High School, which has had significant increased enrollment.”

Currently Sussex Tech has 17 tech areas. Mr. Guthrie believes that number could change. “We have to be flexible with what career opportunities we’re offering students because we want to hit a tech area that offers opportunities for employment for our students,” he said. “We have to be flexible to match the marketplace.”

Sussex Tech’s bid for a new school joins another downstate district seeking major expansion. Facing overcapacity issues and overcrowding due to enrollment growth, Indian River School District is making a pitch for what would be a third referendum bid for a new Sussex Central High School, classroom additions at Indian River High School and Selbyville Middle School. The previous two referendums were for a $158.1 million total major capital project.

The past

In July 2018, Mr. Guthrie assumed the superintendent position previously held by A.J. Lathbury, among the senior-level administrators placed on paid leave by the school board in the wake of a critical state audit released in early June of 2017.

That State Office of Auditor of Accounts report identified piggybacking, bidding violations, circumvention and conflict of interest in million-dollar dealings between the Sussex Technical School District and a local businessman.

The district’s lottery system also came under criticism.

“I know that people’s memories extend to where we had trouble before, but I would just like to assure everybody that we have all changed. I’m new. Four members of my board are new. We have a mantra, and we are trying to be responsible and fiduciary citizens of our taxpayers’ funds,” said Mr. Guthrie.

“We have changed the lottery system away from a lottery system done here to an independent third-party data service center. We have put safeguards within the lottery structure itself. There are witnesses for the lottery.”

“The majority of that school board is a new school board. You have a new superintendent,” said Rep. Briggs King. “And they have been for a year now focusing on getting it back to being the career and technical school that it is supposed to be. The technical programs; the classrooms that are needed for that are much more expensive.”

Waiting game

The district will await DOE’s certificate of necessity decision, which is anticipated sometime in October.

“I know there is a mixture of thoughts,” said Mr. Guthrie. “There is a lot of support out there for it, but there is also a lot of people who are seeing a tax bill go up and they are not interested in that. But my response is and has been; right now we are spending money. We are spending money regardless of whether we have this or not. We’re just spending it inefficiently. We have spent over $14 million just trying to keep the school open.”

Mr. Guthrie added that “Sussex County taxpayers trust us to be good stewards of their money and building a new school saves taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Over the last year, under new leadership, we have put a renewed emphasis on our core career-technical programs to better serve Sussex County. We have reduced spending, increased transparency, and brought a new focus to preparing our students for their future.

“This proposal is the next step in our obligation to meet the needs of our students and our county and have a school of which Sussex County can be proud..

“But for us, as well as Indian River, or anybody else that puts up a referendum, we are at the point where we don’t have many options. We’re spending the money anyway. It’s just coming 100 percent out of your pocket instead of (60 percent) out of the state’s pocket.”

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