Local elections prove that every vote truly counts. More than 9,000 people voted in the May 7 Indian River School District referendum, which was defeated by only 65 votes.
The unofficial tally was 4,643 to 4,578. After failing in February to garner approval for both new school construction and current-expense funding, the district had proposed only a temporary tax increase for new construction to accommodate rapidly growing student populations.
The district hoped to build a bigger Sussex Central High School, plus eight classrooms at Indian River High School and four at Selbyville Middle School. The domino effect of shifting the northern school’s students would have also solved space problems at a total of nine schools for years to come.
The defeat of the referendum is a serious blow to the Indian River School District, said Superintendent Mark Steele.
“We are faced with an anticipated enrollment growth of more than 1,700 students in the next six years, and there is no guarantee the State of Delaware will approve funding for these construction projects in the future.”
That means IRSD has lost the ability to leverage about $95 million of State money, since local taxpayers would have only paid 40 percent (or $63,405,400) of the total construction cost.
The local tax increase would have been a maximum of 35 cents per $100 of assessed value on property taxes (or $69 maximum in one year for the average property owner), returning to zero as the construction bonds are repaid over time.
“At this point, I just don’t know what to do. We’re just going to have to bring in portable [classrooms],” Steele said.
In the meantime, local taxpayers will pay 100 percent of the cost of the rented portable trailers to deal with overcrowding. The IRSD plans to lease up to 22 trailers in the next five years.
That was already planned, but construction could have been done in five years. Now students will attend school in trailers for longer than five years. The first batch of trailers have already been ordered for September at SMS, SCHS and North Georgetown Elementary School.
“That will be a cost of about $3 million over five years, which will equate to a $600,000 draw from your operating expense [budget],” plus tens of thousands more for electric, phones, fire suppression, walkways and more, Steele said. “We’re going be at a current-expense referendum much, much sooner than what I think we would have been.”
After having tightened its belt to rebuild reserve funding, the IRSD is now comfortable financially with its savings fund and operating funds, and if they could have been physically comfortable, Steele said he believes the IRSD wouldn’t have needed another referendum for a number of years. They could make trailers work for five years, but a second five-year lease is just throwing money away into rented buildings, Steele said.
But trailers are a temporary bandage for the problem and don’t solve the overcrowding in hallways, gymnasiums and intricate science labs.
“You still haven’t solved the problem. I’m still going to have to feed 2,200 kids in a cafeteria built for 1,500,” Steele said of the anticipated growth for SCHS.
This week’s vote was a redo of the Feb. 5 referendum, which had failed by 658 votes in a 55-45 percent margin (3860 to 3202). At that time, the IRSD had also requested a current expense question, which failed by a similar margin and was subsequently dropped from the May 7 redo. School districts are allowed to attempt failed referenda a second time.
The Department of Elections will review and officially certify the vote count by mid-May.
Now the school board must brainstorm a path forward. (School board elections are Tuesday, May 14, with three contested seats in the southern voting districts.)
“We’re just going to have to take a look at major changes in the district. There’s always a little more room in the south than the north, and we may have to look at redistricting. And I know people aren’t going to like that, but my question is, ‘What do we do?’” Steele said.
The district could submit paperwork to the State to request new construction, but Steele questions whether that would be successful. Delaware only has so much money for new schools, and only two school districts were allowed to try a capital referendum this year.
Since IRSD failed, the Department of Education might allow the next districts to try their hand next year. And even if state officials again agreed to back the State’s 60 percent share, the IRSD might be too stung to try pushing for new construction so soon.
“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 ther average property. “People just don’t understand how schools are funded. That’s the battle that we constantly, constantly fight.”
“However, the district respects the democratic process and will examine all possible options to keep our students safe and provide them with the best learning environment possible,” Steele said.
Steele thanked the parents and local groups who supported the referendum vote.
“I really just thought if we could just get this though and people would see, it would be a long time before we would have to get back into current expense and capital [referenda],” Steele said.
In the U.S., only a few states still use the referendum process for public education, and Delaware is starting to feel the strain. The Woodbridge School District’s wintertime referendum also failed by roughly 55-45 percent, so that district is also trying again later in May, but for a current expense tax increase, not new construction.
In the meantime, Delaware House Bill 129 has proposed that school boards be allowed to raise taxes by up to 2 percent annually without public referendum. (This only applies to current-expense and operating funds, not capital expenses and new construction.)
The IRSD Board of Education does not support that proposal, partly because board members don’t feel they should be empowered to levy taxes like that.
Moreover, it could politicize the school board, because candidates might run solely on a “no taxes” platform.
“So you get people on the board who don’t have any interest in the educational component and just say ‘no’ whenever tax things come up,” Steele said.
Additionally, a 2018 lawsuit against the State has the courts looking at potential inequality of the current funding system, partly based on property tax rates that haven’t been updated since 1986 at the most recent and since 1973 in Sussex County.
“The referendum process is not just a concern for Indian River. It is a concern for everyone across the state,” Steele said. “Is there reform on the horizon? Probably. I just don’t know if it’s going to be legislatively or a court-sanctioned order.”
By Laura Walter