IRSD referendum fails by 20 votes

Date Published: 
December 2, 2016

Every vote counts on the local level. On Tuesday, Nov. 22, Indian River School District’s current expense referendum was defeated by a margin of 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 will release the certified results on Dec. 5.)

“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.

However, the school board did not discuss the referendum or future plans at the Nov. 28 meeting.

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.

Enrollment is multiplying overnight.

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.

Moreover, in just the last two months, the district has already gained hundreds more students since the official Sept. 30 count — they’ve now surpassed 10,700 total students.

“We are about 270 students greater today than as of Sept. 30. That’s one of the reasons we’ve seen these class sizes nudge up,” said Assistant Superintendent Mark Steele.

According to internal numbers, the total enrollment has increased to 10,744. The official Sept. 30 count was 10,467 students, which was already a growth of 296 students since last year.

But schools only receive state funding based on enrollment as of Sept. 30. Those 277 students won’t be officially counted for state funding purposes until next year.

Meanwhile, five elementary school classes in the district are already larger than Delaware state code allows. The school board has voted to waive the 22-student maximum that exists for Grades 3 and below. Several East Millsboro and Long Neck elementary schools currently exceed that, ranging from 23 to 26 students per class.

“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 — the referendum is for the benefit of the students and their education.”

The referendum’s passage 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.”

Public encourages solid steps forward

A week after the referendum, former state senator George Bunting Jr. (and no relation to Susan Bunting) encouraged the school board to pursue litigation, if needed.

“I made a request to the Attorney General to follow through with an investigation of Mr. Patrick Miller. If the theft investigation proves there was criminal negligence or other [wrongdoing], I hope he would be disciplined as such. I hope you would collectively or individually follow suit,” Bunting said on Nov. 28.

He said he was troubled by the long-range harm caused by Miller’s alleged actions, considering the “passion” teachers and administrators put into their work. He also recommended the IRSD implement an anonymous whistleblower system to encourage people to speak up, without fear of intimidation.

But, ultimately, Bunting said he hopes that voters “realize what’s at stake here. You put kids in overcrowded classrooms, you’re inviting trouble … for the students, for the teachers.”

However, the public is seeking transparency, and the IRSD needs to tell their story better and regain public trust, he said.

The Rev. Claudia Waters said she supports the education system but holds the board accountable. She described the audit’s discovery of unauthorized payments, including instances when Board President Charles Bireley served as a basketball scorekeeper but forwarded his pay to the IRHS Boys Basketball Boosters. Bookkeeping concealed his role.

“You, being a public accountant, know that is a violation of state accountant practices,” Waters scolded.

“I have a problem when there is this amount of money being spent so frivolously when we need to be taking care of the purpose at hand, and that is our children and making sure they’re educated and having the buildings that are ready and equipped,” Waters continued.

“But I find it very hard to give my [money] when it’s taking care of the administration and not the students. I ask you to go back and ask with a clear head and begin to ask the public what they feel is truly needed to move forward. … This board needs to push forward on holding our storekeeper accountable, as well as some of the board members.”