BREAKING NEWS: IRSD referendum fails by 20 votes

District goes back to the drawing board

Date Published: 
Nov. 23, 2016

On the local level, every vote counts. On Tuesday, Nov. 22, the Indian River School District’s current-expense referendum was defeated by a margin of just 20 votes.

On Wednesday morning, the Sussex County Department of Elections’ unofficial results were 3,321 in favor and 3,341 against. (That was a decrease from the IRSD’s unofficial Tuesday-night count of 3,351 against. The Department of Elections will release the certified results within 16 days.)

“While disappointed, we respect the wishes of our public and the workings of the democratic process,” IRSD Superintendent Susan Bunting said on Tuesday night. “In the coming weeks, we will go back to the drawing board to re-evaluate our needs and formulate strategies to accommodate our rapid growth in student enrollment.”

The proposed 49-cent increase (per $100 of assessed Sussex County property taxes) would raise about $7.35 million in the 2017 tax cycle. Money was proposed to fund student enrollment growth (desks, supplies and new teacher salaries), school safety, technology, textbooks and extracurricular student organizations.

Public support varied among the six polling places, from 40 percent approval rate at Long Neck Elementary to 54 percent approval at East Millsboro Elementary. (Those numbers have not yet been confirmed by the Department of Elections.)

Now, for district officials, it’s time to analyze the numbers and try again.

“Right now, it looks like — particularly in the Long Neck area — we need to do some more work,” Bunting said.

And they can try again. School districts may go to referendum twice per fiscal year. They just need to give the Department of Elections 60 days’ notice.

“The Board of Education will consider many options, including the possibility of another referendum in 2017,” most likely in late January or early February, Bunting said.

The next school board meeting is Monday, Nov. 28, at 7 p.m. at Indian River High School.

If the district cannot get the votes, proposed budget cuts could include the reduction of about 10 percent of staff, or about 150 employees.

The slim voting margin (0.3 percent) could be considered good or bad for the district. On one hand, it’s a bitterly close loss. On the other hand, they only need to convince a small number of people to go out and support the referendum to swing the results to success.

The voter turnout (6,662 voters) was approximately 150 more people than participated in the IRSD’s last referendum. In January of 2013, the public approved both a bond issue to build new classrooms and a new kitchen, and a current-expense issue to provide materials and salaries for those classrooms, by 69 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

Currently, schools are packing in an average of about 320 additional students annually, for the last five years. Those kids need resources, Bunting has said.

In the last two months, the district has already gained about 100 more students from the official Sept. 30 count, meaning they’ve now surpassed 10,500 total students.

“I think [voters] really need to think about the numbers, because … we continue to grow,” Bunting said.

“They’ll, hopefully, realize that need impacts our teachers and make sure that our students have the public support with the extra operating expenses. I’ve said it over and over again,” Bunting added. “Their vote [outcome] today was not for the students — the referendum is for the benefit of the students and their education.”

The referendum was hindered by the issues involved in the district audit released five days prior by Delaware Office of Auditor of Accounts (AOA), which found misuse of funds, poor oversight, nepotism and other faults within IRSD’s finances — some issues attributed to the former chief financial officer.

Although he noted the timing was unfortunate, State Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr. said he wanted voters to have the facts when going to the polls. Rumors have buzzed about the district’s finances since April, when the IRSD’s former CFO, Patrick Miller, was placed on leave, then resigned, and IRSD officials and other individuals contacted the AOA for an official review.

Due to ongoing investigations, Bunting said she could not comment on any potential lawsuits or reparations of funds — or who is doing the investigating.

“Our audits have come back clean every time we were audited. So this was an issue that was a bit of a surprise to us,” she said. “We’ve already begin putting in some new practices — with a new business director, you always put in new practices” to address the auditor’s concerns.

“We thank the public for its past support of our schools,” Bunting said, “and assure residents that we remain committed to providing their children with the best education possible.”