On Tuesday, more than 9,000 voters turned out to have their voices heard in the Indian River School District’s second try at a referendum to fund construction of a sorely needed new Sussex Central High School and additional classrooms at other district schools. It all came down to several dozen votes, about 1/10th of the margin of the first failed referendum vote in February.
There’s no question that the issue has divided the community. And certainly there are few more emotional issues than these two: taxes (no one likes tax increases) and the education of our youth. Enhancing the emotional tenor of this issue has been controversy over the impact of children of undocumented immigrants. At times, the conversation has gotten ugly.
In defeating the referendum this week, voters left a number of issues that must nonetheless still be addressed.
• SCHS’s population has reached the point where the students can’t comfortably walk down the halls between classes. Carts have become classrooms, lunch times are on near-impossibly short shifts, and students this fall will be in rented trailers outside the buildings that taxpayers have already paid to secure.
• The district is legally required to educate all students residing in the district, regardless of where they come from, who their parents are or whether they got here legally. District officials’ hands are tied. And, in the meantime, refusing to increase school capacity affects all of the students, including the ones whose families have been here for generations.
• School districts get funding from the State on a per-pupil basis, and the district already has a net loss of money to other districts. For every child who is homeschooled, or attends a private school or a non-IRSD school, there is a corresponding loss of funding to IRSD. And it could be that the State would take things into its own hands with legislation that would allow districts to increase taxes without a referendum.
• The basic numbers: 10,697 total students, and growing (rapidly); 1,826 students added since 2011 alone; and that rate is expected to grow, with 12,473 students expected to be in the district by 2024. That’s a tide the district is powerless to stem. Many of these students are children or grandchildren of existing area residents who have found beach-area real estate prices to be out of their reach and have moved to the Millsboro area, where the worst of the school overcrowding is and where additional classrooms are most desperately needed.
• With the original construction and current-expense funding requested by the district in February, the cost of these needed improvements would have been about $88 per year, at most, for the average property owner, dropping down to less than $20 per year as a permanent increase — about $1.55 a month. And the district didn’t even ask for that much on Tuesday.
“People don’t understand how this works. Social media is where you really hit the rumors. Rumors going around today said it would be $68 a month. It’s not! It would have been a $5 increase a month” at the most, in Year 4 for the average property owner, said Superintendent Mark Steele after this week’s vote. “People just don’t understand how schools are funded. That’s the battle that we constantly, constantly fight.”
So, once again, the question remains: How will we solve this problem impacting our children and our community for many years to come? The problem didn’t go away after the February vote. It won’t go away just because the public rejected this proposed solution. Now it’s really time for us all — the public and our legislators — to step up and figure out how to best serve our community and its future generations.