District: One building would ease burden at several schools

Public referendum vote on Thursday, Feb. 13

It’s time for residents of the Indian River School District to vote regarding the district’s future. There will be a major capital referendum on Thursday, Feb. 13, (with a weather date of Feb. 20).

The one-question referendum is a vote “for” or “against” allowing the school district to issue $58.4 million worth of bonds for major capital improvements. The loans would be repaid through a temporary increase in property taxes, which funds the local share (40 percent) of construction of a new Sussex Central High School on district-owned property next to the existing school.

This plan would alleviate capacity issues at about five additional schools: The new building would hold more high-schoolers. Millsboro Middle School would move into the old high school building. The old middle school would become an additional elementary school for Georgetown and Millsboro students.

“I can tell you it’s needed, desperately needed, and if we don’t do it, it is going to come back in the future and cost us more,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele. “Right now, we’re critical space-wise. … I’m telling you, when you go down south, they’re building like crazy,” he said, referencing a new emergency department on Route 17, and developers who are starting to focus on starter family homes and apartments.

If the referendum passes, the State would contribute 60 percent ($87.7 million) of the overall $146 million project cost. The numbers are set strictly by state formulas and guidelines. The IRSD is only asking local taxpayers for the minimum cost possible.

Any district resident who is a U.S. citizen and at least 18 years old is eligible to vote. Voter registration is not required, but proof of identity and address are required (such as a Delaware ID card and/or utility bill).

Polls will be open Feb. 13 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at six IRSD schools. Voters can choose to vote at any of the six locations: East Millsboro Elementary School, Georgetown Elementary School, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary School, Lord Baltimore Elementary School and Selbyville Middle School.

Voters can also expect to use Delaware’s new voting machines, which were introduced in the 2019 school board elections.

Absentee voting is available through the Sussex County Department of Elections, 119 N. Race Street, P.O. Box 457, Georgetown, DE 19947. In-person voting is permitted at the Department until noon on Wednesday, Feb. 12. For absentee ballots to be mailed out, the Department must receive a completed affidavit by noon on Monday, Feb. 10, by mail, email or fax. All absentee ballots must be delivered to the Department by 8 p.m. on Feb. 13.

For details and paperwork, call (302) 856-5367, email absenteesc@delaware.gov, or visit https://electionssc.delaware.gov/school_absentee.shtml.

For more information, contact the IRSD Referendum Hotline at (302) 436-1079 or visit irsd.net/referendum.


Behind the scenes


The short story is that Sussex County is growing fast, and student enrollment is filling up all the seats IR schools have to offer, including in the south part of the district, but especially in the north.

The IRSD has grown even faster than the University of Delaware predicted years ago, reaching a level of student enrollment that wasn’t predicted to arrive until six years from now. District enrollment is projected to grow by another 2,000 students in next five years.

“So we have greatly surpassed what we thought we would be,” Steele said. “Today our enrollment is 11,171 students. We are about 97 percent district capacity. … All of our seats are about full. Millsboro’s the No. 1-growing town for permits,” but developers are increasingly targeting Selbyville, Millville and Georgetown for apartments and less expensive housing.

The district has already installed portable classrooms in an elementary school and a high school. They closed the Kindergarten Center to make use of the space and implemented a three-tiered busing system when a two-tiered system wouldn’t have gotten all of the district’s students to school on time. Many teachers don’t have a classroom, and they teach from a cart or in non-traditional spaces.

At almost daily presentations and meetings, Steele and other district officials have been educating the public on the current state of education and finances in the district.

Financially, he said, the IRSD is doing well. They’ve built a $12.5 million reserve fund, which is critical to meet payroll every summer until taxes are deposited each autumn. In a few years, they could possibly pay the local share of a Selbyville Middle School addition without raising local taxes. (That school is also currently above enrollment capacity.)


Looking at the numbers


The current IRSD school tax is $3.067 per $100 of assessed property value. (Sussex County property values have not been reassessed in decades, so the assessed value is much lower than the real estate value.)

If the referendum is approved, the tax rate would increase by a few cents for three years and then immediately drop again. That is because the IRSD is currently paying off debt faster than it’s borrowing. The cost would ramp up as construction occurs for several years. But then, not only would the district begin repaying this debt, they’d be finishing repayment of older construction bonds from 20 years ago.

At its height, the property tax rate might increase by 28 cents per $100 of appraised value (and possibly less, if bond rates stay low). So, at most, for one year, the monthly impact on the average district taxpayer would be $5.31 per month, which is less than the cost of a Netflix subscription, Steele said. (This is based on the average taxpayer property assessment of $22,751.) After the 2023 fiscal year, the debt service fees will decrease every year until the construction bonds are retired.

People can view their Sussex County property tax assessment at www.sussexcountyde.gov (Click on “Search for Tax Information” in the bottom corner).

People can view the impact of this referendum on their taxes with the IRSD tax calculator at www.irsd.net/referendum.

“Fiscally, the school board is about as conservative as it comes. I don’t want to spend a dollar if I don’t have to spend it,” said Board Member Jim Fritz. “We’ve cut numerous things over the years. … I don’t want my tax dollars going up any more,” but he said his personal tax impact was surprisingly minimal.

If the referendum passes, IRSD would still have the cheapest tax rate of Sussex County’s traditional school districts.

And if the referendum sounds familiar, it’s because the IRSD hosted a similar referendum in the spring of 2019. The public rejected the first referendum by a 10-percent margin. Thousands of ballots later, the second referendum was rejected by just 65 votes.

But the school board has reiterated that this project is the best and most responsible investment of public tax dollars.

“With the savings and seats we are producing … we feel we will be able to take care of the north for eight years,” Steele said. “It’ll alleviate overcrowding with one building. It’s a lot cheaper.”

To get to the Feb. 13 referendum, the IRSD went through the entire state funding process again, and the Department of Education again agreed to allow the project forward for public referendum.

“By only building one school … it’s going to provide opportunity for additional growth over the next decade,” said Steele.


If it fails…


Failure of the referendum would impact the whole district, Steele said.

The State pays 60 percent of school construction, but only a fraction of trailer installation. With trailers needed to house more and more students, the IRSD would be depleting its reserve fund, painstakingly rebuilt over the past three years.

“We only have so many seats in the district, and once our kids exceed that number, we have to go out and lease and lease, and we’re going to eat our reserve monies at an alarming rate,” Steele said, as the district budgeted more than $400,000 for the first round of trailers, and more are needed.

“We’re eventually going to come back, in the near future, for another referendum for current expense,” he said, which could result in either a permanent tax increase or potential loss of student programs and staff positions, just like in 2017.

To share the pain of overcrowding, some northern students would likely be redistricted southward, where crowding is less severe, so the Indian River High School feeder pattern also risks overcrowding.

“It’s going to adversely affect the educational environment,” said Steele, since it’s harder for students to learn as effectively and for schools to maintain safety and security. “Do we want to give them the best education possible? … A lot of taxes are for the common good of the community. And that’s where we are.”

The public could also risk losing their right to even vote in referendum.

“Politically … if local school areas cannot take it upon themselves to raise the taxes they need, there is push to take it out of the local control and have the state-elected politicians take over, have the state take over school taxes,” said Fritz.


The broader issues to address after referendum


The school district can’t control everything. Legally, they must accept every child that arrives at their door, whether the child came from another state or another country.

School districts are not managed by the County. Sussex County merely collects the property taxes and distributes the school portion to each district.

It would be up to county and municipal governments to create and collect impact fees, although people are increasingly asking why developers don’t pay impact fees for building and selling new houses in Sussex County.

Although discussions are occurring about potentially changing Delaware’s process of educational funding, it’s ultimately up to county and state legislators to change that system, too. The IRSD can only increase tax rates in a significant way though public referendum.

Even the voter qualifications and voting locations are determined by the State.

“These are things that we have zero control over as a school district,” Steele said. “We can only control what we have in front of us: that is our buildings, our children and our employees. Everything else is legislative. … If these issues are important to you, talk to your legislators.”


By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter