Voters strike down Indian River School District’s $158M expansion proposal

SELBYVILLE — It’s back to the drawing board for the Indian River School District and board of education after voters on Tuesday rejected the district’s call for $158.1 million for new construction to accommodate enrollment growth.

By a 3,866 to 3,202 margin, voters said “no” to the district’s major capital improvement request to fund a new Sussex Central High School, an eight-classroom addition at Indian River High School and a four-classroom addition at Selbyville Middle School.

The state would have covered 60 percent of that $158.1 million project, leaving the district’s 40-percent local share of $63,405,400.

Voters also defeated the current expense component, 3,836 to 3,124, for operational funding for staff, curriculum, supplies, transportation and utility expenses for a high school and elementary school. That proposal called for a 9-cent current expense tax increase.

“We are obviously disappointed with the outcome of the referendum, but we respect the wishes of our residents,” IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele said.

IRSD’s current PreK-12 enrollment as of Sept. 30, 2018 was 10,697 students, an increase of 1,826 students since 2011. Enrollment growth is projected to continue during the next six years and reach 12,473 students by 2024.

Mark Steele

“With our total enrollment projected to grow by more than 1,700 students during the next six years, we are still faced with a shortage of classroom space at several schools. In the coming weeks, our administration and board of education will re-evaluate our needs and formulate strategies to accommodate this rapid rate of growth,” said Mr. Steele. “Many options will be considered, including hosting another referendum in 2019. Despite this setback, we remain committed to providing the best possible learning environment to the students of the Indian River School District.”

Utilizing portable classroom units has been discussed as an option to help ease overcrowding.

Voting was held 13 hours at East Millsboro Elementary School, Georgetown Elementary School, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary School, Lord Baltimore Elementary School and Selbyville Middle School.

The thrust of the major capital request was to alleviate overcrowding due to a substantial increase in the district’s total enrollment during the past eight years.

The school district hoped to construct of a new 2,200-student Sussex Central High School on district-owned property at the current SCHS campus, which would have paved the way for renovations at two other buildings.

Part of the plan was to move Millsboro Middle School into the existing Sussex Central High School building, with Millsboro Middle School converted into an elementary school.

The referendum carried a maximum possible tax increase of $87.55 per year for the “average” district property owner. This included the 9-cent current expense tax increase, which would result in an “average” increase of $18.58.

The “average” assessment is $20,653, based on estimated market value of $199,000 to $225,000.

Had the referendum passed, IRSD’s overall tax rate would increase from $3.067 to $3.507, which would still have been the lowest in the county.

Mr. Steele could not say Tuesday night if there might be a follow-up referendum, as was the case in March 2017 when IRSD voters approved a $7.35 million current expense referendum in a record-smashing turnout after an initial referendum held in November 2016 failed by 20 votes. That tally in 2017 was 7,095 to 5,394.

“We need to sit down as a board and with my staff and work out a plan on where we want go. We’re going to try to get some things ready for a meeting. We need to come together. We need to share things when we look at costs and we need to figure out what direction we need to go in,” said Mr. Steele.

“We won’t know until we discuss what option that we’re going to go with. It (a second referendum proposal) is a potential option. It’s always an option. Whether or not we decide to go with it, that is a different story.”

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