The Indian River School District has about two months to plan — and pass — a public referendum to build new schools and renovate others.
Amid the area’s increasingly busy traffic and the once-empty cornfields now full of housing developments, IRSD officials and staff see the same congestion in their classrooms, and some schools are at a breaking point.
The IRSD Board of Education now plans to schedule a public referendum for Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. In the event of inclement weather, the referendum will be rescheduled to Feb. 19, 2019.
The IRSD’s overall plan is to build a replacement Sussex Central High School; convert the current SCHS building into a new Millsboro Middle School; convert the current Millsboro Middle into an additional elementary school; and build additions at Selbyville Middle School and Indian River High School.
“If you utilize what we’ve got, build just what we need, … [it’s] smart for the taxpayers,” said Superintendent Mark Steele, emphasizing the creativity of the plan.
Compared to all new construction, conversion projects require minimal funding, so the IRSD only needs referendum construction funds for the major projects: a brand-new SCHS in Millsboro; four new classrooms at SMS; and eight new classrooms at IRHS in Dagsboro.
At the most, it will cost local taxpayers an additional 44 cents per $100 of assessed property value. That annual addition to their tax bills will then decrease as building costs are repaid.
A referendum would include two portions: capital expense for the one-time building and furnishing costs (35.24 cents per $100 of assessed value, at the most), which will slide back to zero over 20 years; plus current expense for the ongoing maintenance, staff and curriculum (9 cents per $100 of assessed value, permanently).
Those figures have decreased slightly since last week’s finance committee meetings.
The State pays the majority of construction costs in a 60/40 split. For example, of the total $158,513,965 construction bill, IRSD taxpayers will pay $63,405,400.
The current IRSD tax rate is $3.067 per $100 of assessed property values. (Sussex County property values have not been reassessed in decades, so the assessed value is much lower than the real estate value.) Each penny of tax is now worth $163,000 to the district, said Finance Director Jan Steele.
If the February referendum passes, the IRSD would need to get on the State of Delaware’s bond bill for funding, and then administrators hope to start designing the projects in July. Even then, construction of all the new facilities would take four or five years.
For now, the schools are getting creative and converting spare offices and conference rooms into instructional space. The IRSD will still need trailers or some other temporary classrooms in the next few years, as a bubble of students is still working upward into the older grades. This year’s enrollment is 10,697, up from 10,619 last year.
“We are rapidly expanding. This year, our library will be converted into two classrooms,” Millsboro Middle School Principal Jessica Jackson had previously told the Coastal Point.
But the proposed elementary/middle school shift should relieve pressure across the north of the district, with the adjustment of a few school boundary lines.
The current plan costs roughly $27.6 million less than the IRSD’s previous plan of building multiple new schools. Although it was approved by the State, the IRSD never took that question to referendum.
Meanwhile, the State has already given IRSD about $3 million to begin designing a replacement Howard T. Ennis School, to be built across the street from SCHS. That project doesn’t require a local referendum — as a county-wide school for students with special needs, it will be 100 percent State-funded.
Citizens review budget for hours
When the public demanded more transparency from the school board and district, the IRSD in 2017 created the Citizens Budget Oversight Committee. Now starting its second year, the CBOC includes 10 community members who are intended to bring outside perspective and new ideas from the private sector.
“Each member takes this role of oversight very seriously. … We question any line that seems unusual or that raises any concerns,” CBOC member Morley Daehn told the school board in November.
“Our [quarterly] meetings usually run several hours, in which we question all aspects of district operations, finance, policy. … We’ve had lengthy discussions about the rapid growth of the district, students population and how best to address it,” Daehn continued.
“To those in the audience that are district taxpayers: we are here to make sure you get the most value for each tax dollar that is spent by the district,” he said, promising that the group is not just a “window-dressing or rubber stamp” for district activities.
Daehn also commended Superintendent Mark Steele and Finance Director Jan Steele for their transparency and responsiveness to committee questions.
“I can say absolutely that both Mark and Jan are doing an outstanding job safeguarding district finances,” he concluded.
The CBOC will meet at 6 p.m. on Jan. 15, April 16 and July 16. It’s meetings are open to the public and are held at the Indian River Educational Complex in Selbyville.
In other IRSD news:
• On Nov. 26, the school board approved a $160.9 million budget for the 2019 fiscal year. That’s about $8 million more than last year’s planned budget, and about $15 million more than last year’s actual budget.
• With state budget cuts to education, the Department of Education has once again asked that school districts give back a percentage of state funding. For their roughly $1.5 million giveback, IRSD opted not to fill 12 teaching positions, plus other staff and administrator positions. They will also give back money for technology and professional development. Some money was recouped from earmarked grants elsewhere in the state budget.
• Lord Baltimore Elementary School will be getting a new electronic sign, paid for by PTO fundraisers and community donations. It will save “hours” of work compared to the manual changeable-letters sign, officials said.
• For his 4-H project, fifth-grader Logan Uibel will install a “blessing box” food pantry for people to donate or take canned goods, near the sidewalk at Phillip C. Showell Elementary School.
• Although K-3 classrooms are officially not permitted to exceed 22 students per teacher, the IRSD is requesting a class-size waiver for first-grade classes at PCS and Southern Delaware School of the Arts, as well as three second-grade classes at LB. Enrollment varies from 23 to 25 students. Superintendent Steele said it is a relatively low waiver compared to past years.
• Sussex Central High School will get a new $48,875 tractor, to improve grass maintenance and snow removal for multiple future schools there. It is not a Bermuda grass mower. The current, smaller, tractor will be reused at an elementary school.
The next regular monthly meeting of the Indian River Board of Education will be Monday, Dec. 17, at 7 p.m. at Sussex Central High School.
By Laura Walter