IRSD referendum passes with record turnout

Overwhelmed LB turned to paper ballots

Date Published: 
March 10, 2017

Voters were waiting in line before the polls even opened March 2 at six schools in the Indian River School District. But despite the long lines and a last-minute switch to paper votes, and with a lot of public debate, 57 percent of the public voted to approve IRSD’s current-expense referendum.

The Sussex County Department of Elections’ unofficial tally of 7,091 to 5,298 will be certified in the next few weeks. (The count differs slightly from IRSD’s initial count of 7,095 to 5,394.)

“That’s incredible, and I can just say I am so grateful for the public support,” IRSD Interim Superintendent Mark Steele said just minutes after the results came in. “It’s unbelievable that we were able to work together and get this through, amongst strong support against, strong support for, and, at the end, people pulling together. And I think that’s just an incredible show of our community.”

The vote will permanently raise local property taxes by 49 cents per $100 of assessed value, in a dramatic reversal of the Nov. 17, 2016, vote on the same tax increase, which failed by 20 votes among nearly 6,700 voters.

In raw numbers, the 12,389 voters were likely the district’s highest turnout ever for a referendum (the next highest on record was around 8,000 votes in the 2000 major capital-improvements referendum, which built the two new high schools and renovated other district schools).

It’s also nearly double the 6,700 voters who showed up in IRSD’s first attempt at the same referendum. But, this time, the ballot measure won at all schools except Long Neck Elementary.

The turnaround in the outcome could be due to several factors, including the votes of high school seniors who turned 18 this winter and pledged their support.

“I think the parents showed up in force to support this, to try to save programs for our kids, positions for the teachers,” Steele said. “With the added pressure of State cuts coming, I think a lot of parents looked at it and thought, ‘That’s going to be a little too much…”

Even with a successful referendum, the IRSD needs to cut about $5 million from its own spending, so missing out on these local funds would have been “devastating.”

Steele thanked the parent “ambassadors” who did outreach, corrected public misconceptions and conveyed community needs to the district. He also thanked district staff for their outreach activities and the school board for its efforts to evaluate how to improve the system.

Social media played a major role in this election, with Steele’s two Facebook Live broadcasts having been viewed or shared thousands of times. But it also offered a place for immediate — and at times, fierce — debate.

“This was the most critical referendum, I felt, in the history of the school district,” said Steele, as student enrollment grows faster than ever.

But the financial saga hasn’t ended.

“Even though this passes, we’re still going to have to lean our budget, and we’ll start to work on that,” Steele said.

District staff have been reviewing budgets, and school board members have been asking more questions. New Business Director Jan Steele has written new policies and procedures to address the State Auditor’s 2016 report of IRSD’s lacking financial procedures and excessive trust in its former chief financial officer.

“I want to provide enough layers of oversight that everybody’s is able to trust us, and everybody’s going to have a real good feeling about our school district,” Mark Steele said. “We’re going to do what we need to do. We’ve listened to our parents, our community. We know they want us to be in a good position financially, and we’re going … to get there.”

Next, the IRSD will begin organizing a community budget oversight committee, getting the public more involved.

In an effort to improve transparency, the IRSD monthly committee meetings have been moved to the more public Sussex Central High School auditorium (Policy Committee at 4 p.m., Curriculum Committee 5 at p.m., Buildings & Grounds Committee at 6 p.m. and Finance Committee at 7:30 p.m.).

Meanwhile, some community members have been clamoring for some change in administration. No school board members are up for reelection this year, but in January, longtime Superintendent Susan Bunting was appointed Secretary of Education under Gov. John Carney. This has created room for a new administration.

Steele, who already has some public support to become the next superintendent, said he wants to create a multi-year strategic plan for enrollment, budget, and yes, future referenda.

Based on early calculations, he estimates that at least 150 jobs were saved through last week’s vote.

“We’re $7.35 million better than where we were. It puts us in a much better financial state with our monies, to move forward,” Steele said.

Lord Baltimore machines overflowed

More than 3,000 voters showed up at Lord Baltimore Elementary School last Thursday, flooding the auditorium all day. By 5:30 p.m., both electronic voting machines had reached their capacity of 1,200 votes.

At that point, volunteer election workers suggested that voters either visit a different voting location or write their vote on the back of their signed affidavit.

Jean Turner, deputy director of the Department of Elections for Sussex County, was on site during the voting and said she oversaw the cardboard box where 661 paper ballots were cast.

Some people said they were uncomfortable at the thought of having their name attached to their vote, at the surrounding people being able to see the “yay” or “nay” votes written and at the ballots being tossed into an open cardboard box.

“That is locked up and secured. Nobody will be checking the names and who they voted for or what they voted for,” Turner said.

“I did not have complaints,” Turner said.

Because residents could vote at any of the six locations, rumors also flew about individuals voting multiple times. But photo IDs are checked against signed affidavits at each location, Turner said.

“We will catch up with [that],” Turner said of any possible multiple votes. “We are entering every affidavit that was entered into a database. When we are finished, we will be able to find out if anyone voted more than one time — even the absentee ballots.”

Any potential voter fraud would be reported to the Delaware Attorney General’s Office.

The Department of Elections will meet soon, with the Commissioner of Elections present, to certify the results.

Electronic voting machines were introduced to local voters in 1996, and mechanical machines were used before that. Turner said she couldn’t say when Delaware last used paper ballots regularly. She said the department is in charge of placing voting machines and will consider adding more machines in the future.