IRSD slow to move on new building approvals

New Ennis would be entirely State-funded

Date Published: 
December 23, 2016

The Indian River School District’s major challenges all stem from student enrollment. It’s growing faster than the money and buildings can keep up.

But the school district isn’t focused on building right now, even though the Delaware Department of Education gave them permission to host a major capital improvement referendum for four new buildings/renovations, totaling $74.5 million in local costs.

“The board’s No. 1 concern is current-expense,” said Assistant Superintendent Mark Steele. “If we can’t afford to hire teachers, why build a school and have empty classrooms? The board has a very hard decision to make.”

First, there isn’t enough money to continue what IRSD is already doing. Student enrollment is growing too rapidly, and local tax dollars aren’t keeping up, just to keep the lights on. That’s the purpose of the recently failed (and recently rescheduled) current-expense referendum, to increase property taxes by 49 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

“We have always been one of the best districts in the state for a long time” Steele said, and still kept taxes low. “We’re to the point we really need community support to pass this.”

Secondly, schools are overcrowded. Sussex Central High School students complained about poor circulation in the hallways when the school first opened in 2004. In a rare move, the State allowed SCHS to be built for a larger capacity than was needed at the time. Today, SCHS has around 1,650 students in a 1,500-capactiy building, Steele estimated.

One year before the IRSD realized the financial shortfall of this past autumn, they invited the community to discuss the future of the district. That led to a request for six building projects.

The Delaware Department of Education approved four of the biggest projects, totaling just over $186 million. If the school board approved all of them, the local 40 percent share would be $74.5 million.

Steele described the need for three new buildings and one addition.

“When we were up there that day [at SCHS] … it’s almost like the kids shuffled,” he said. “I guarantee those kids only had five to 10 minutes for lunch” because the cafeteria was so packed.

The SCHS addition ($106.3 million for classrooms, cafeteria and gymnasium) includes an extra $1 million for “extraordinary costs.” The IRSD learned the hard way that major road repairs might accompany construction. If three schools were located on Patriots Way in Georgetown, the Delaware Department of Transportation would likely charge IRSD for two new traffic signals and other road impacts.

“I don’t think people realize that’s what bumped our overage” with the last construction projects, Steele said. IRSD paid several million more dollars than anticipated, all pulled from their local budget, not part of the referendum funds.

The State approves school budgets based on a formula of enrollment and school type. Those costs include furniture and other items to fill the school.

The DOE has approved a 720-student elementary school near Ingram Pond ($28.7 million total) and a 750-student middle school near SCHS ($51.2 million total).

The issue at hand

“These were approved only. Now it’s up to the board and the public to decide if and when we do construction on that,” Steele said.

The board has held little or no public discussion about new buildings. All attention has been on issue No. 1: current expenses.

“We really need to show the public they can trust us and the decisions the board makes are financially-sound discussions,” Steele said. “If we can’t pass it, we’re going to cut significant costs.”

Steele compared the costs of the new buildings to a 20-year mortgage — not a massive lump sum that would spike local tax rates. And the district wouldn’t necessarily do all of the approved projects.

“We might not do any of them,” Steele said.

H.T. Ennis requires no local funds

The IRSD manages the Howard T. Ennis School, which serves all special-needs students in Sussex County. Therefore, a replacement costing about $44.7 million would be all State-funded.

The IRSD doesn’t need to go to referendum for that.

“[Ennis] is a 100-percent State-funded school, which means we don’t pay anything on that,” Steele said. “We’d be crazy not to [approve it].”

Fearn-Clendaniel Architects Inc. was hired to review Ennis. The findings were not good. The 46-year-old building is drastically lacking.

“Conditions are less than ideal,” stated the district’s Ennis report. “Ceilings are low, corridors are narrow, and bathrooms are inadequate. More critical than the physical condition, however, is the drastic overcrowding and lack of space provided by the existing facility. Every area of the site and building is undersized to support the student population and program requirements.”

That’s bad for a regular student population, but considered critical for Ennis’s special population.

“Every available space within the school is overfilled with materials, tools and equipment,” the report said. “The existing school building is radically undersized for the mission it must house.”

Traffic safety, stormwater management and other issues were also mentioned.

The property is too small to handle an addition, so the IRSD is in talks to build on the State-owned Stockley Center property near SCHS.