The 2019 Indian River School District public referendum has failed, by roughly 55-45 percent. The unofficial count was 3,866 voting against and 3,205 voting in favor of the major capital expense question and 3,836 voting against and 3,128 voting in favor of the current expense question.
“We’re very disappointed. We were hoping we would be able to pass this, but we also respect the wishes of our constituents,” IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele said after polls closed on Feb. 5.
Between the proposed local increase in property taxes and State funding, IRSD officials had hoped to build a new Sussex Central High School, which would solve space at that school and other northern IRSD schools, plus eight new classrooms at Indian River High School and four classrooms at Selbyville Middle School. Residents were also asked to approve funding for staff, curriculum, supplies, transportation and utility expenses for the new space.
“Capacity is a major issue that we’re going to face in our district in the future. We’re going to have to tackle it somewhere along the line and, hopefully, be able to get space for our kids,” Steele said. “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.”
For instance, desperate for classroom space, Sussex Central High School is already likely to lease about 15 portable trailers for use as classrooms on the campus in the next two years. Now, those trailers could remain on campus indefinitely. But that still doesn’t help the cafeteria, gymnasium or hallway capacities. Also, some teachers don’t have their own classrooms and must teach in a different space every period.
The IRSD will now have to pay 100 percent of the portable classroom costs from local discretionary funds, or the district’s recently replenished reserve fund. (The State would have paid 60 percent of the cost of the new construction, had the referendum been approved.)
“This does not hinder the education our students will be getting,” Steele assured. “They will continue to get a quality education at the Indian River School District. It’ll be a little bit tougher. It’ll be hard on the students where we have overcrowding, but it’s something we will overcome.”
Later this month, district administrators and the school board will analyze the results of the vote and brainstorm their options, although Steele said he would not speculate on what the board may decide.
Districts are allowed to try another referendum in 60 days, but that could be tough. The 10-percent margin of voting in the referendum’s failure was much more significant than the 20-vote loss in the 2016-2017 referendum, which ultimately passed on the second vote, after a major public-outreach campaign.
The voting results will be reviewed and certified in the coming weeks. The Delaware Department of Elections chose the polling locations of Ocean View, Selbyville, Dagsboro, Millsboro, Long Neck and Georgetown. Residents are allowed to vote at any convenient location, but Lord Baltimore Elementary School was the only location where a majority of voters favored the referendum.
By Laura Walter