People are starting to build opinions — and, more importantly, to educate themselves — on the Indian River School District’s proposed public referendum.
On Feb. 5, residents will vote on whether to pay for additional classrooms, staff and materials in the school district.
“This is the referendum you want to get informed on, because you’re going to see what you’re getting,” said Superintendent Mark Steele, who said he has learned, “You really need to take the time to explain to folks what’s happening and why.”
District officials have begun hosting public informational meetings to explain the two referendum questions, the need and background on the district’s rapid enrollment growth in a rapidly developing area.
“Within the next 10 years, they have permits out to build 3,000 home units in Millsboro,” Steele reported on Jan. 7 from a conversation with Millsboro town officials. More people will entice more businesses to come.
Retirees coming to the pricier coastal areas are also attracting more services and businesses, as doctors, nurses, shopkeepers, lawyers and other young workers follow the new job opportunities.
“The number of families that continue to move in our area is increasing drastically,” Steele said. “You go anywhere east, you just see construction after construction. We just have an area that’s rapidly growing, and it’s going to continue.”
The IRSD now has the third-highest enrollment of any district in the state, after two Wilmington districts, Steele said. Several IRSD schools are already over their space capacity, and bigger classes of young children are coming up through the system.
In the last seven years, the IRSD has already grown by more than 1,800 students, which alone could fill more than two ideally-sized elementary schools. Using his own background as a statistics teacher, Steele projects almost another 1,800 more kids will enter IRSD in the next six years, bringing the current total of about 10,700 far beyond 12,000.
The referendum will include two separate ballot questions, with each requiring a “For” or “Against” vote: capital expense for the one-time building and furnishing costs, and current expense for the ongoing maintenance, staff and curriculum.
First on the list of planned projects is construction of a new Sussex Central High School; an eight-classroom addition at Indian River High School; and a four-classroom addition at Selbyville Middle School.
Then, the IRSD would do some creative, low-cost shuffling, converting the current SCHS building into a new Millsboro Middle School and converting the current Millsboro Middle into an additional elementary school.
The debt service tax increase for the construction projects will be phased in over a four-year period and not reach the maximum of 35 cents until the 2023 fiscal year. After that, the debt service rate will decrease every year until the construction bonds are retired.
Meanwhile, the current-expense property tax increase of 9 cents (per $100 of assessed value) is a permanent increase that is necessary to fund ongoing utility costs, maintenance supplies, transportation expenses and the local share of staff salaries (plus temporary classroom trailers until construction ends).
At the highest level under the referendum questions, the projects could cost local taxpayers an additional 44 cents per $100 of assessed property value, which would then decrease as building costs are repaid.
The public doesn’t have to pass both questions, although district officials would definitely prefer it. Most importantly, Steele urged, please share accurate information, even if you don’t support the vote.
Administrators have also discussed their fiscal responsibility over the past few years, tightening their belts, rebuilding the district’s savings reserve, increasing oversight and working to be good stewards of taxpayer money. They’ve also changed school choice rules so that out-of-district newcomers are less likely to be admitted, unless there truly is room (and, mostly, there isn’t).
The big idea
Despite having space issues at multiple northern schools in the district, “We can solve it [by] building one school,” moving each age group into a large building and giving everyone space to move, while maintaining more comfortable enrollment numbers, Steele said.
Costs should be relatively minimal for retrofitting the two schools for younger kids. Moreover, the IRSD can use minor capital funding, which is part of their regular annual maintenance budget, also split between state and local funding. So the district doesn’t have to request more money than it already expects each year.
The next big challenge will be changing geographic boundaries for ideal traffic flow of the new bus routes.
Soon, the district will have to start renting trailers as portable classrooms, starting with about 15 at Sussex Central.
“I hate it with a passion, but I don’t know how [else] we’re going to be able to manage it,” Steele said of portable trailers, which cost $94,000 each before adding electric, furniture, phones or fire alarms. “What we’re seeing over the next five, six years — we have larger numbers in our elementary, middle schools. … It’s going to grow. We’re moving out some small classes, and we’re going to see some large classes,” he said.
Even if the referendum passes, it’ll take four or five years to complete a new building.
If the referendum fails (and the district can try twice per year to get a referendum passed), students could be outdoors in those trailers for years. That’s a major safety concern, for everything from thunderstorms to active shooters. The district has dealt with trailers before, but they’re considered far from ideal. The situation also means more teachers with their gear on carts, without a classroom of their own.
Spreading the word
School Board Member Jim Fritz said he was glad to get feedback and questions, although he wished for a larger audience at the informational meeting on Jan. 7. (Perhaps a dozen members of the public attended, besides IRSD administrators and school board members.)
Steele will continue hosting public meetings, as well as live broadcasts on YouTube and Facebook. School board members will reach out to their own networks, some doing radio interviews and just reaching out to their local networks and constituents.
“Not try to influence anybody, but at least give them the right information, the facts,” said Fritz. “That’s more or less the school board’s responsibility — just communicate with the public, ask for the public’s questions when constituents call, try to spread the word to people you see on a daily basis.”
People debate the issues
Although it was a small crowd at the Jan. 7 meeting at Sussex Central, they asked about school funding, enrollment and more. Afterward, some shared their opinions and experiences.
Blair Williams of Oak Orchard said she has experienced life in an overcrowded school, having graduated last year from Sussex Central High School. She would sprint to the cafeteria just to have enough time to eat, since the lunch line snaked all the way back to the hallway. Otherwise, kids risked having only 10 minutes to eat their meals.
Another woman said her two children beg her to pack their lunches, so they don’t have to wait in long lunch lines at East Millsboro Elementary School.
“I support this,” Williams said of the referendum, “because I know, even since I moved down here, there was always talk of building the new school.”
Williams said she, too, has done the traditional SCHS “shuffle” in hallways, where there’s not enough room for students to walk with a normal stride.
Shawn Remp of Oak Orchard said she was slightly on the fence. Although she definitely supports the school district, she said, she also shares the growing public sentiment that developers should pay more impact fees upfront if they want to build houses that attract a growing population.
On the other hand, a Georgetown man said he doesn’t support a new tax because he sees a large Hispanic population in the area and connects it with the broader challenge of U.S. immigration. He suggested that “American kids are being penalized” for attending Georgetown elementary schools, where the Hispanic population is above 50 percent. (Note: That figure does not relate to citizenship or immigration status, but to race/ethnicity.)
But it’s not the Hispanic population causing the problem, said Steele. It’s the new housing development next to Delaware Technical Community College, with 288 apartments and 140 single-family homes, he said. It’s the thousands of housing units that have been approved across a popular and rapidly growing region.
Moreover, School Board Member Gerald “Jerry” Peden Jr. argued that ethnicity had “no effect” on his three children’s education at Georgetown Elementary School.
“My kids — not by their brains, but by all the teachers and their assistants — ranked top in the state,” Peden said. “I would put them against any school in the state.”
Public meetings will continue on Jan. 16 at 6 p.m. at Georgetown Middle School, Jan. 23 at 6 p.m. at Indian River High School and Jan. 30 at 6 p.m. at Lord Baltimore Elementary School.
Senior citizens can learn about the referendum, as well as property tax subsidies and discounts, at public meetings on Jan. 23 at 10 a.m. at Indian River High School and on Jan. 24 at 10 a.m. at Sussex Central High School.
The State pays the majority of school construction costs, in a 60/40 split. For example, of the total $158,513,965 construction bill for the proposed projects, IRSD taxpayers will pay $63,405,400.
The maximum property tax increase needed to fund the district’s 40-percent local share ($63,405,400) of the construction projects is 35 cents per $100 of assessed value.
That is a temporary increase. The amount will increase to maximum of 35 cents by the 2023 fiscal year. After that, the debt service rate will decrease again every year until the construction debt is paid off. (At the same time, the IRSD is also paying off older construction bonds from 2004, so the overall line item will seem to decrease even more rapidly.)
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.) It’s a misconception that taxes are based on real estate value.
But inflation is slow to benefit school districts, which have to request rate changes, since the base values rarely change. The housing growth doesn’t keep up with the cost to educate each child.
Bottom line: On average, the combined initiatives would result in a maximum increase of $87.55 on the average district property owner’s annual tax bill, sliding down to a final increase of $18.59 annually, on average, for the current expenses.
Voting set for Feb. 5
The major capital improvement and current expense referendum is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 5, from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. (In case of inclement weather, the referendum will be rescheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 19.) District residents may vote at any of the polling places: East Millsboro Elementary School, Georgetown Elementary School, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary School, Lord Baltimore Elementary School and Selbyville Middle School.
Indian River School District residents who are U.S. citizens and at least 18 are eligible to vote in the referendum. Voter registration is not required, but residents must provide proof of identification or residency at each polling place.
Absentee ballots are available by mail until noon on Feb. 1 and in person until noon on Feb. 4. Affidavits are available at all district schools or by contacting the Department of Elections at (302) 856-5367 and at http://electionssc.delaware.gov.
For more information, contact Indian River’s referendum hotline at (302) 436-1079. Detailed information, such as tax rates, sample ballots, frequently asked questions and the PowerPoint presentation, are posted online at www.irsd.net/referendum.
For more information about property taxes, including discounts for seniors and people with disabilities, visit www.sussexcountyde.gov or call (302) 855-7760.
By Laura Walter