School district hears steel drums

The Indian River School District (IRSD) School Board dealt with a full agenda at the May 24 School Board meeting — according to Finance and Business Director Patrick Miller, the executive session let out well after 1 a.m.

However, the board first took time out for a little video footage from the island of Trinidad, and Southern Delaware School of the Arts’ (SDSA’s) John Syphard report on the Steel The Show (steel drum) band’s recent trip to the West Indies.

“I’m a social studies teacher, not a music teacher,” Syphard admitted — but the trip had been great for his curriculum, too. He noted drastic climatic, cultural and demographic variations from the Sussex County norm.

Forty percent of the Trinidad and Tobago population is of Indian descent (emigrated from India, that is), with about the same percentage of African descent, he said. Hinduism is nearly as widespread as Roman Catholicism (Anglicanism comes in third, and then Islam).

And, of course, there was the cultural phenomenon known as “Island Time.” Syphard said things were noticeably less hectic than back on the mainland.

Steel The Show players had the opportunity to jam with drummers about their same age, and according to Syphard, they’d picked up a song or two. Remarkably, he said they’d been the first American band to San Fernando (which is the second largest city in the country, after capital Port-of-Spain). Syphard had a chance to meet the mayor — and then the Prime Minister — and heard what he considered probably the best steel drum band in the world.

The steel drum originated in Trinidad, he pointed out, and held the distinction of being probably the only new addition to the realm of percussion instruments in modern history (the last 100 years or so). Syphard compared steel drum music to symphony orchestra — “this is not just sitting around in Margaritaville,” he emphasized.

He said the Steel The Show players might have learned a thing or two about work ethic and dedication from their Trinidadian counterparts, who seemed to be practicing 20 hours a day in preparation for an upcoming national competition.

Syphard thanked the School Board for making the trip possible. “You’ve changed the lives of a lot of children — and adults,” he said. “And if you haven’t heard these kids (Steel The Show) recently — they really sound like the real thing.”

The SDSA musicians are finding themselves more and more in demand as they continue to polish their skills, and according to Syphard, have 23 performances scheduled over the next month and a half, including a pair of parades for the Fourth of July.

The band they visited in Trinidad will be coming to visit, late June through mid-July, and Steel Your Face is slated to play alongside Golden Hands at the Bethany Beach Bandstand on July 7, he said.

May 24 occasioned a special bon voyage for School Board Member M. Elaine McCabe, as District Superintendent Lois Hobbs presented her with a retirement gift and thanked her for her “11 years of service on the Board, and a lot of extra time on committees.”

Hobbs recognized Board President Harvey Walls as well, for his long run in public service (since 1992), and then the board as a whole — especially the incumbents returning from this year’s School Board election and freshman Board Member Donna Mitchell.

Mitchell is also a member of the Indian River football boosters, and had some news to report on that front. She said they were asking the district for permission to move forward with an addition to the concessions stand at the new Indian River stadium (facing the field), which could be built using private contributions and donated materials.

She said they’d raised $51,000 to date, and Miken Builders had expressed tentative interest in the job.

In other booster business, Board Member Charles Bireley asked for permission to distribute Indian River boys’ basketball boosters funds for summer camp sponsorships.

(Recipients must be academically eligible at the end of the school year.)

The board unanimously approved on both.

Hobbs also recognized Selbyville Middle School (SMS) Principal Michael Kline for his school’s receipt of the Lt. Gov.’s Models of Excellence in Education Award (Sussex Central Middle Principal Vincent Catania received one, too).

According to Kline, the award is given for continuous achievement in Delaware State Testing Program (DSTP) results. “It’s quite an accomplishment, when you consider that four years ago, we were on academic watch,” he said.

Kline credited programs like “Meet the Challenge” (focused on shoring up DSTP trouble spots), “Read 180,” support tutorials and after-school programs.

This being said, he noted the staff’s dedication as the most critical factor behind the improvements.

In other business, the board approved a 2005-2006 calendar — again. They went with a version very similar to the one they had approved a couple months ago, although one in-service day in October will now become a school day, and there are no snow days built in — they will all have to be tacked on at the end of the year.

As it stands, next school year will start after Labor Day weekend, and if the weather holds, students will break for summer on June 9.

Also back from last month’s meeting, continued debate over potential behavior modification personnel cuts.

Selbyville Middle School (SMS) substitute teacher Cathy Berzins reiterated her concerns as preface to a report from the newly formed Safety in our Schools (SOS) committee. She said the cuts had been played as nothing dramatically out of the ordinary — many of those contracts were renewed on a year-to-year basis, and the district would likely hire most of them again in the fall (albeit, possibly at lower pay).

However, if there wasn’t something very different this time, why the vocal objections from the terminated workers, and why did students (mainly from Indian River High, but also a few from SMS) stage morning protests for a week straight, she asked.

“This was not a typical let go/rehire meeting,” Berzins said. “This was a termination meeting. These personnel left that meeting with the clear understanding that they were terminated.”

Patrice Pikulsky outlined the SOS committee report, again emphasizing support for the preservation of behavior modification programs.

She presented a list of some tough questions for the School Board, but the petition SOS has been circulating is actually more critical of state budget reductions.

The petition recommends the state look for “general fund revenue reductions” somewhere else — not within the state Department of Education — and states the signers’ intention to press elected officials to restore equalization, energy and operating funds.

Pikulsky noted 543 signatures to date.

In other news, High School Principals Mark Steele (Indian River) and Donna Hall (Sussex Central) addressed the board with a petition to hold off on policy changes regarding senior class valedictorians and salutatorians.

According to policy presented for first reading on May 24, GPAs would be recalculated based on weighted grades (for academic or advanced placement courses) only for the common core courses (English, math, science, social studies).

Steele objected to changing the system midstream for some students — he asked Walls to hold off until 2009. However, Walls said he’d wanted the policy in place for next year, and had already compromised in agreeing to 2007.

The board will revisit that topic and a policy clarifying requirements for receiving a “seal of distinction” on diplomas, plus a few clerical changes, at next month’s meeting.

Board members also reconsidered a bid packet for renovations at East Millsboro Elementary School. They voted last month to approve those bids, despite the fact that it was more than $500,000 over budget (an apparent low bidder dropped out), but rescinded that approval and moved to rebid this month.

Building and Grounds Committee/School Board Member Greg Hastings said he’d received a new timeline for work on the heating/air system that seemed to work on May 23, just prior to this month’s meeting.

At that time, he said EDiS President Ted Dwyer (construction management) had recommended a redesign, rebid and pushed-back start for that portion of the project (until April 2006).

There were asbestos abatement issues to contend with, plus the onset of winter. Dwyer said he was sure they would not be able to finish by “heating season,” and would have to bring in temporary heat if they tried to hold the existing timeline.

East Millsboro Principal Gary Brittingham said the move would extend the timeline by about five months, but he considered Dwyer’s plan the best way to go.

Hastings agreed, forwarded the reversed recommendation to the rest of the School Board, and in light of the new information and revised schedule, they unanimously approved the rebid.

And finally, senior citizen tax relief is back on the table. Miller said they’d received word from Sussex County government pointing out the irrevocable nature of that tax break.

Miller said they had a message in to the state asking for confirmation on that, but he expected they would concur.

According to Miller, all of the other recently approved budget reductions would be exercised in the fiscal 2006 budget. Other than that, it’s the status quo, he said – no new initiatives, no new incentives.

He noted a substantial increase in operations expenditures — heat, propane, electricity — partly due to inflation in the marketplace, partly due to opening the two new schools.

That budget line increased from $1.86 million to $2.42 million.

Other bottom lines — the district anticipates a slight decrease in discretionary operating revenues, down 0.7 percent to roughly $21.5 million. Funds from local referendums made up the difference, $410,000, in balancing discretionary expenditures.

Total local salaries/other employment costs (OECs) plus referendum teachers/OECs added to nearly $15.2 million, by far the largest item under discretionary expenditures.

• $365,000 for textbooks, $250,000 for JROTC programs around the district.

• $201,000 for Indian River athletic director Dale Steele’s disbursement (on a related note, athletic gate receipts around the district totaled nearly $74,000).

• $95,000 budget for Indian River, $90,000 for SDSA, $73,000 for SMS, $62,000 for Lord Baltimore, $46,000 for Frankford Elementary and $30,000 for Phillip C. Showell.

Non-discretionary appropriations totaled $38.3 million (same for expenditures), more than $22.4 from state funds for Division I (teachers only) salaries.

• Tuition/special needs/intensive learning centers (ILCs) comprised $10.4 million

• Federal programs expended $5.8 million, state transportation roughly $3.8 million and food service $1.1 million.

Howard T. Ennis is figured separately, with a $2.3 million discretionary and $4 million non-discretionary budget.

The district has more than $92.8 million budgeted for capital improvements (60 percent state funding, 40 percent local).

Nearly $60.7 million of that is marked as expended, with projects at Frankford, East Millsboro, SDSA/District headquarters, Lord Baltimore, old Indian River and Millsboro Middle (old Sussex Central Middle) still in queue.

Miller listed buildings as the district’s largest assets, by far, with the new high schools topping the list. Although they haven’t been appraised yet, he valued the new Indian River High School at more than $28.8 million, and Sussex Central High School at nearly $32.8 million, based on construction costs.