School choice will change, lunch prices will not
School budgeting is tricky, since districts won’t know how much money is coming until the official “unit count” of students in September.
But, for now, the Indian River School District is loosening its belt after last year’s tight budget cycle. On Aug. 27, the school board approved a $157,888,925 preliminary budget, which is $5.3 million more than last year. That figure includes $153.8 million in expenses and $2 million for the reserve fund.
Once again, the State has asked school districts to “give back” money — either through unfilled job positions or other funds. So far, the IRSD has only identified about a quarter of its roughly $2 million “give back” requirement.
“The discretionary budget is about 48 million. It’s an increase 2.6 percent over last year,” said Finance Director Jan Steele. “We have increased the budgets to the schools by $586,000 dollars. The athletic budgets were reinstated from last year’s budget cuts. Some of the EPER — the extra pay for extra responsibility — positions were reinstated for teachers in the schools.”
Salaries have also increased, as planned by the existing staff contracts.
Steele noted that foster-care transportation costs have increased based on need, but the State pays all of that. Regular transportation costs are only 90 percent covered by the State.
“We will do a final budget when we know exactly what our unit count is,” Steele said.
Districts must submit a Financial Position Report to prove they can make payroll until state funds are deposited in autumn.
“We are required to have enough local funds enough to pay one month’s local salary [which is] $2.5 million for us,” said Steele, who has helped rebuild the district’s reserve fund. “I estimate that we will have … 8.5 [million dollars], so we’re in very good position.”
Also, as the district moves toward designing a replacement Howard T. Ennis School, the board voted to hire a general contractor, rather than a construction management team.
“Both of them are very close. It’s like 48 to 52 percent. You can get a good building with either one … [but] it’s oversight that carries the day,” said Buildings & Grounds Supervisor Joe Booth, advocating for the more transparent method.
School lunch prices remain the same for students for the 14th straight year. Pricing includes: $1 for an elementary lunch platter; $1.10 for middle and high school lunch platters; 40 cents for milk; 40 cents for reduced-price lunches; 60 cents for a student breakfast platter; and 30 cents for a reduced-price breakfast platter.
Adult meals increased to $3.65 for lunch and $2.40 for breakfast.
The preliminary budget can be found online at www.boarddocs.com/de/irsd/Board.nsf/Public (click “Meetings,” “Aug. 27, 2018,” “View the Agenda,” and scroll to the “Financial Reports”).
Submitting building plans
Meanwhile, the IRSD has submitted three requests to the Department of Education for major building plans: a new Sussex Central High School building, plus additions to Indian River High School and Selbyville Middle School.
The State will decide by this autumn which projects deserve a Certificate of Necessity, which would allow the district to take the major capital improvement question to public referendum.
Luckily for the district and its taxpayers, neither transforming the existing SCHS into a middle school nor transforming the existing Millsboro Middle School into an elementary school should require major funds. Any upgrades can be paid by minor capital improvement funds, which are built into each budget.
In other school board news:
• Donald Hattier, a board member and Boy Scout leader, thanked the district for assigning a full-time custodian to the Ingram Pond facility. The IRSD’s outdoor science center has appeared safe, clean and well-maintained, he said.
• School choice once again caused debate, highlighting the apparent need for policy changes. Board Members Heather Statler, Leolga Wright and Jim Fritz voted against the application of an out-of-district ninth-grader who was ultimately admitted to the overcrowded Sussex Central High School because of a loophole for special programming.
“We’ve had conversations about capacity and programs. … Capacity was supposed to mean that we were not going to be accepting anybody out-of-district that didn’t have ties [to IRSD], that had never been here before,” Statler said. “I do not understand why we are accepting somebody that does not have any ties.”
“That is correct,” Superintendent Mark Steele said. However, because of a current loophole, this student is eligible to enter a special program, such as the International Baccalaureate program.
The IRSD Policy Committee will brainstorm a school-choice overhaul this autumn, meeting on the second Monday of each month at 4 p.m. at the Indian River Education Complex in Selbyville.
“We have about four, five things now that we have discovered that we need to change to bring it back in line,” Steele said. “Some of them involved caps on certain situations, some involved what we have here,” which is capacity of a program versus the overall school capacity.
They will also consider an audit of school-choice students to ensure they’re sticking to their program each year. Anyone who drops it might have to drop that school.
This summer, a district committee also met thrice to carefully consider unique or late applications, such as those that cited “good cause” or extenuating circumstances, such as change of address or custody under divorced parents.
“It’s a healthy discussion with the committee,” including some tough decisions regarding “good cause,” said Assistant Superintendent Jay Owens. “The State leaves it open to interpretation” for the districts to decide.
Board members also asked about the resiliency of the IRHS Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) program if it only enrolled about half of its 21 available spots. Funding is based on unit count and career tech education (CTE) minutes.
The IRSD’s school choice rules are listed online, although not on the School Choice webpage. Visit www.irsd.net (click “Parents & Students,” “Policy Manual,” “Policies – J Students” and “JECC-A School Choice”).
• Board member Jim Fritz said the new Bermuda grass fields at Indian River and Sussex Central high schools are looking good and ready to be played upon.
“Any rumors anybody may have heard about our athletic stadium and field hockey fields not being ready is just rumor. Go out and take a look at the field. The Bermuda grass is looking great.”
R&L Irrigation has been maintaining the grass with nutrients and sowing rye seed to fill in the empty spots.
“Those fields are ready to be played on,” Fritz said.
The grass was planted in both high schools right after the 2018 graduation ceremonies. It will take several years to reach ideal conditions, and it will die after the first frost. But it grows so quickly in spring and summer that it can require multiple mowings each week.
• The IRSD will be moving some G.W. Carver Academy programs into the high school. Although it will be similar to the existing alternative-school model, the students can also gain integration into the regular career-tech pathway or elective classes.
Superintendent Steele said that increases the students’ opportunities; and the Carver principal was comfortable with the students going, although she said she’ll continue to monitor their progress.
However, as leader of the School Safety Committee, Layfield said he was concerned with moving students with some behavioral problems back into a 1,700-student school. Although he said he understands some students have cognitive issues that affect behavior, he said he will also monitor the situation.
• Superintendent Steele complimented the new group of teachers who had just completed orientation. “This might be one of the best groups of people we’ve hired in a while,” he said.
The Indian River School District’s next board of education meeting is Monday, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m. at IR High School in Dagsboro.
By Laura Walter