It’s just the first step of many, but the Indian River School District has made the first movement toward the referendum process for building a new school.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the IRSD Board of Education will decide to host a referendum in the 2019-2020 school year — or that the State of Delaware will even agree to fund its 60 percent share.
But after the monthly status update of installing portable classroom trailers and shrinking yet another library to fit more instructional space, Board Member Jim Hudson commented, “We can’t put a Band-Aid on something that needs surgery.”
IRSD school board members emphasized that their springtime plan (which failed twice in referendum) was ideal for solving overcrowding issues. By building just one new school, the IRSD would have solved space problems at seven schools, by shifting student populations and some attendance boundaries (in addition to new classrooms at Selbyville Middle School and Indian River High School).
“To me, it’s pretty straightforward,” said Board Member Donald Hattier. “We need a new building. The plan we worked out was a good solid one.”
“These requests reflected a building plan that is financially reasonable and responsible,” said district resident Mike Buso during the June 24 board meeting. “I do hope the school district and the community can work together to keep the district on track to benefit the children and the community as a whole.”
The board’s decision to begin the process was 9-0 on June 24, with Board Member Gerald “Jerry” Peden Jr. absent.
But board members said they recognize the uphill battle ahead in passing a potential referendum. It failed by a 10-percent margin in February, and a referendum of a slightly smaller scope, held in May, failed by a margin of less than 1 percent.
“I’m very concerned, because the public has spoken twice, very close each time,” said Board Member Rodney Layfield. “I’m urging us to look at what we can modify,” if anything.
“I respect what you’re saying, but we need more, not less,” said Hudson, commenting on his recent drive through razed Millsboro farmland that will become the Plantation Lakes community. “I had no idea all that was going up. There are houses going up everywhere. Duplexes, houses everywhere. … The one thing in my mind is: Where are these kids going to go to school?”
To even consider capital projects or public referendum, the administration needs to prepare documents and cost estimates by August.
“Next month, if we think it’s going to be too much, we can stop,” said Superintendent Mark Steele.
For the IRSD to even start the referendum process, they must request Certificates of Necessity (CNs) from the State of Delaware. That paperwork is due in August. Then, the Department of Education evaluates Indian River’s need, compared to every other funding request in Delaware schools.
If the department recognizes and decides to invest in IR’s project (usually 60 percent of the cost), they will issue a CN in autumn. Then the school district chooses whether take the question to public referendum to raise the local share (40 percent) of construction funds. Like a mortgage, the local tax increase would decrease over time as IRSD pays down the debt.
The school board would vote whether to move forward at every step of the way. They completed the entire CN process last year. (In 2016, the State had also approved CNs for several new schools and expansions, but IRSD opted not to pursue a major capital referendum at that time, since they sought to bolster regular income with a current-expense referendum instead.)
As the IRSD prepares to lease its first set of trailers (which receive no state funding and are paid for entirely by local taxes), they will save a few dollars, because the Cape Henlopen School District will give the IRSD two single-classroom trailers, for just the transport cost of $16,700.
The school board has also approved subdividing the Sussex Central High School library for extra classroom space for small-group instruction and testing.
Last month, Selbyville Middle School was given permission to subdivide its library, rather than install portable classrooms, partly because there is no room for the portable classrooms on site.
Millsboro Middle School already transformed its library into classrooms last year.
Meanwhile, in July, the school board expects to see more designs for the replacement Howard T. Ennis School. Although managed by IRSD, it is a 100-percent State-funded school.
By Laura Walter