The Sussex Technical School District has spent millions of dollars renovating a 60-year-old school building. They have added wings, piecemeal, over the decades, and they still have some students in 20-year-old “temporary” classrooms. Moreover, they are in the middle of planning critical repairs to old and potentially dangerous underground pipes.
This August, the district’s school board decided to stop throwing good money after bad. They voted unanimously to pursue building a new Sussex Technical High School.
Perhaps surprisingly, building an entirely new building had been the most inexpensive of three options for improvement, which were proposed after a five-month independent review of the school grounds.
Other options included renovating only the oldest parts of the complex and continuing patchwork repairs to the newer wings ($190.2 million); renovating the entire school complex ($177.6 million); or a building brand-new building (150.5 million).
The plan aims to ensure the future of Sussex County’s career-technical education programs for both high school students and adult learners who are served by the district.
“After the data was presented to us in three options, the new school is the option that saves taxpayers the most,” said Board President Warren Reid. “It is the most responsible choice for the future of our students and the workforce in Sussex County. This will not be an extravagant building, just what we need to serve our high school and adult education students.”
Right now, some areas of the school even lack basic climate control. Shop classes will throw open the garage doors for fresh air, but students still emerge sweaty after class. The auto shop lacks electrical circuitry needed run some diagnostic machinery. Elsewhere, the HVAC system isn’t sufficient to filter the exhaust.
“People may blink at the cost,” District Superintendent Stephen Guthrie told the Coastal Point, but Tech has spent more than $14 million on maintenance over the past few years. “Who knows how many other breaks there are across the school? We have 50-year-old water lines.”
Also on Aug. 12, the Sussex Tech school board had discussed stop-gap measures to get the football field through one more season before the stormwater pipes on either side fail. Even worse, emergency repairs were just made to the bus parking lot, where tiny hole opened up to a large cavern where old terra cotta piping has disintegrated under the blacktop. That could have been calamitous if discovered even a week later.
“We are answerable to Sussex County taxpayers, and it is neither right nor ethical to continue to sink their money into an inefficient building with outdated and wasteful mechanical systems that are expensive to operate,” Guthrie said.
In some areas, operating costs could even decrease as the building becomes more energy efficient. (It even lacks insulation in places, Guthrie noted.)
“We are very excited that we’re moving in this direction,” said Guthrie. “We think the cost is reasonable, considering we’re looking at a building that has had 60 years of construction,” resulting in some confusing layouts and dead-end corridors as previous administrations attempted what they could to fill the technological needs. “I’m not degrading what was done before, [but] the look and use is significantly dated.”
The less-intrusive option
As a bonus, building a new school also takes less time, and is less intrusive on student life. Because Tech already owns property behind the existing school, they can complete construction on the excess land in four years, while the old building operates as usual.
Then, the old building will be demolished and turned into parking or green space along the roadway. The athletic fields may be upgraded or reconfigured, too.
Renovations would have been more expensive and intrusive because Tech would still have had to build temporary labs and workshops, beyond the portable trailers traditionally used for academic classes.
“A career-technical high school has needs that differ from a conventional school,” Guthrie said. “Our students need to use industry-standard equipment, such as dental radiography machines, cosmetology work stations and HVAC-R vacuum pumps and tanks. You can’t just carry saws and routers into a trailer and start a carpentry lesson.”
Moreover, renovations wouldn’t have solved Tech’s other campus-wide challenges: traffic congestion in the parking lots and on U.S. Route 9; security upgrades for student and staff safety; and needed upgrades for technical classrooms to accommodate future industry-standard equipment and technology.
Building a new school is the only option that sufficiently addresses all of those issues, said Board President Warren Reid. Recommendations were made by independent consultant, ABHA/BSA+A.
Without a new building, “The status quo will continue,” officials said. “Sussex Tech will continue to spend money on maintenance … essential to keeping our building in working order. None of that money went to educate our students.”
The next step and the tax increase
This building isn’t a done deal.
Now, the Sussex Technical School District has to ask permission to build the new school. This month, they will submit a proposal to the Delaware Department of Education. If the DOE recognizes it as a worthy project and agrees to support the construction cost, it will issue a certificate-of-necessity.
Here’s where the process differs from usual: Traditional school districts, such as Indian River, have to pass a public referendum to increase property taxes for the local share (40 percent) of construction costs. But Tech is a county-wide school, so the property tax decision is made by majority vote of the Delaware State Legislature.
The new building is estimated to cost $150.5 million, of which the State of Delaware would pay 60 percent.
“For taxpayers, the share will be phased in over three years and then decline each year after that,” the District announced. “In the third year, at its highest, that is estimated to be just $38.18 per year for the average Sussex County single-family homeowner. That works out to about $3.18 per month — less than the price of a fast-food sandwich.”
Because Sussex Tech covers the entire county, all of the county’s taxpayers pay a little into it each year. The current tax rate is 23 cents per $100 assessed value (which is much lower than market value because Sussex County hasn’t reevaluated property values in decades). In year three, the highest estimated tax increase would be an additional 14.8 cents per $100, the district told the Coastal Point.
Sussex Technical High School houses 1,200 high school students and 2,800 adult education students. High school students each choose one of 17 technical areas in which to concentrate. The main high school building was constructed in stages, starting in 1960 and continuing with five more wings added over the decades.
The current school has a footprint of about 294,000 square feet, including the main building and about 20 outbuildings. The new building would be about 313,000 square feet.
The building would have capacity for 1,600 students to accommodate student interest and growth (about 500 applicants for places in ninth grade were wait-listed this year. More details are below).
Actual engineering and designs for the proposed new school won’t begin unless and until the State approves the project.
Rebuilding trust at Sussex Tech
In recent years, Tech was criticized for seeming to expand with college-bound students, rather than serving its original vo-tech/career mission.
“There was some concern before … that we were skimming academically college-bound students … and not really following the technology focus we should have,” Guthrie said.
The Delaware State Legislature forced Tech to reduce enrollment by several hundred students, down to 1,250 students in the 2017-2018 school year (there was no cap prescribed for last year). Also, the tax rate was permanently reduced.
Guthrie said he hopes the legislature will increase both those numbers again, to better serve the population.
“We’ve changed our focus and had conversations with our delegation,” Guthrie said. “We had 802 freshman applications this year, and with the cap, we could only accept 270 of them. My interpretation is we’re not serving the population [adequately], so I think we can make a reasonable case to go back to that 1,600.”
But, this time, it’ll be with a better tech focus, he said.
“We have spent the last year retooling our student schedule and … a strategic plan,” which includes senior capstone projects and actual part-time work experience in their chosen fields before graduation.
Also, in 2017, a state audit accused Sussex Tech of dodging State-required financial and bidding procedures, and for overpaying for land and construction management, at taxpayers’ expense.
“Your trust is important to us, and we believe in transparency,” officials stated. “We understand that prior administrations made the wrong decisions when it came to spending your money.”
Under the tax cuts and a new financial director, Sussex Tech has done a line-by-line examination of spending and revenues, including consolidating budgets and eliminating some non-essential expenses, while attempting to minimize student impact. The district has also created more oversight committees.
“We have reduced spending, increased transparency and brought a new focus to preparing our students for their future,” said Guthrie. “This proposal is the next step in our obligation to meet the needs of our students and our county, and have a school of which Sussex County can be proud.”
The next Sussex Technical School District school board meeting will be Sept. 11 at 4 p.m., a board work session to review the implementation of their new Strategic Plan.
By Laura Walter