IRSD’s referendum set for Nov. 22

Audit to be released Nov. 17

Date Published: 
November 18, 2016

The Indian River School District is asking taxpayers to think local when it comes to funding education. The public will vote in a Nov. 22 referendum on whether to approve a 49-cent increase in the local tax rate — primarily to keep up with skyrocketing student enrollment.

Polls will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Polling places will be East Millsboro Elementary, Georgetown Elementary, Indian River High, Long Neck Elementary, Lord Baltimore Elementary and Selbyville Middle schools.

Voters must be residents of the Indian River School District, at least 18 and U.S citizens. Voters must bring proof of identity and residency. They do not need to be registered voters.

Currently, IRSD residents pay $2.578 per $100 of assessed property value. The proposed increase would bring that to $3.068 per $100 of assessed value, which would still be the lowest school tax rate in Sussex County. (For Sussex County tax purposes, property values haven’t been reassessed in decades, so the assessed value of a property is generally much lower than the market value.)

The ballot itself is basically yes-or-no: “For the additional tax” or “against the additional tax.”

The school board is requesting 49 cents of tax per $100 of assessed value, based on the following breakdown:

• Student enrollment growth — 33 cents ($4,950,000 total, for teachers, desks and supplies)

• School safety — 10 cents ($1,500,000, for salaries and safety improvements)

• Technology — 3 cents ($450,000)

• Textbooks — 2 cents ($300,000)

• Student organizations — 1 cent ($150,000 for extracurriculars).

School Board President Charles Bireley said the district asked for that amount because “We’re trying not to come back each year” to request more money of the public.

Additionally, the district needs to rebuild its reserve fund, which has recently been chipped away.

By requesting more local money in certain areas, that will free up general funds to be used at the IRSD’s discretion, said IRSD board member Jim Fritz. Schools are primarily funded through State funding and local property taxes. But the local tax rate for “current expenses” doesn’t change unless the public votes for an increase.

The IRSD’s overall tax rate has actually decreased in the last few years, since the district’s “debt service” tax is like a mortgage payment that can decrease over time and “tuition tax” varies based on students’ special academic needs.

The IRSD’s student enrollment is growing faster than anyone anticipated, and much faster than local taxes have kept up with. With nearly 10,500 students, the district has grown by an average of more than 319 students annually for the last five years.

Meanwhile, district has been using local funds for items that get no state funding — such as unexpected construction costs and a comprehensive school safety program, including 15 school safety monitors.

But that means the IRSD hasn’t had the money to afford the local share of the additional desks, teachers, administrators, materials and even printer paper that are warranted by the student enrollment increase.

This autumn, the budget shortfall hit hard in every school. Discretionary budgets were slashed at every IRSD school, and the now-reduced district contingency fund finally saw its rainy day.

Superintendent Susan Bunting called the referendum and requested tax increase an investment in everyone’s future, including the adults who will one day rely on services provided by today’s students.

If the referendum fails, the IRSD is allowed to try another referendum in the spring (at which point, the district may also be considering new schools, in a major capital improvement referendum). If it fails again, Bunting said she foresees the firing of 10 percent of IRSD staff, amongst other cuts.

If the referendum is successful, property owners would see the change on their 2017 Sussex County tax bill.

Any property owner can view their property assessments online at www.SussexCountyDE.gov (click on the “Tax information” link at the bottom right).

Referendum information is online at www.irsd.net/referendum. People can also ask questions via the IRSD referendum hotline, at (302) 436-1079.

Waiting in the wings

The public has had mixed reactions to the proposed tax increase. Some people want to support the schools, including County Councilman Rob Arlett. School Board member Jerry Peden Jr. said some people favor the referendum because a strong education system means higher property values, as real estate listings typically mention the school districts.

Other citizens flat-out oppose a tax increase, or they wanted more data on finances or enrollment than they had. Even the teachers’ union had misconceptions and concerns to address before Indian River Education Association (IREA) officially voted to support the referendum.

And some people are waiting to hear the results of IRSD’s financial audit by the Delaware Office of Auditor of Accounts (AOA).

The audit began in May, after IRSD’s former chief financial officer, Patrick Miller, was placed on administrative and then resigned.

IRSD administrators said they will respond to the audit at a Nov. 18 press conference “to address the state auditor’s report regarding the district’s former chief financial officer.”

State Auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr. said there are two areas covered by audit investigations: the review of financial policies and procedures that may be problematic, and the potential for legal infractions. As of Coastal Point press time, it was not publicly known whether either area had been found to be of concern for the IRSD.

Look for more information at www.coastalpoint.com and in next week’s issue of the Coastal Point.