ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: IRSD polls open for referendum again March 2

Date Published: 
Feb. 23, 2017

Local polls will open on Thursday, March 2, for the Indian River School District’s current-expense referendum.

Comparing it to the November 2016 referendum, which failed by 20 votes, IRSD Acting Superintendent Mark Steele said, “We’re still asking you for the same 49 cents,” but the expenses have been restructured.

The school board is requesting 49 cents of tax per $100 of assessed property value, based on the following breakdown:
• 33 cents — Student enrollment growth ($4.95 million total, for teachers, desks and supplies)
• 8 cents — School safety ($1.2 million, for salaries and safety improvements)
• 8 cents — Transportation, technology, textbooks, student organizations ($1.2 million for new and continuing expenses, including transportation).

“It’s the most important decision that we’re asking you to make since the inception of the Indian River School District in 1967,” Steele emphasized.

Local funds are needed to rebuild the district’s reserves, pay for school safety initiatives and make up for state funding cuts that will likely begin in July.

In the last 18 months, district enrollment has grown by nearly 600 students, which is nearly the size of an entire elementary school. But the local property taxes haven’t kept pace.

“A growth rate of 3 to 4 percent per year is expected to continue into the future, and the district projects its enrollment to exceed 12,000 by 2022,” district officials said of the ongoing growth in the number of students it serves. The unofficial enrollment is currently above 10,700 students.

“We’re going to continue to grow probably for the next 8 to 10 years,” said Steele, whose specialty is math and statistics.

Learn more

Residents can get first-hand information and ask questions at two more public meetings:
• Thursday, Feb. 23, at 6 p.m. at Indian River High School; and
• Monday, Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. at Sussex Central High School (prior to the IRSD Board of Education meeting).

Details, including a tax calculator, are online at www.irsd.net/referendum.

If the referendum passes, the IRSD would still have the lowest regular district tax rate in Sussex County.

Discounts are available for local taxes. The state and county offer tax assistance programs for senior citizens, and low-income and disabled individuals. For information or applications, contact the Sussex County Assessment Division; P.O. Box 589; Georgetown, DE 19947, or telephone (302) 855-7824. Details are online at www.sussexcountyde.gov/tax-assistance-programs.

Voter eligibility

Voters may choose any poll location to cast their vote, no matter where in the district they live. Polls will be open March 2 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at: East Millsboro Elementary, Georgetown Elementary, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary, Lord Baltimore Elementary and Selbyville Middle School.

Voters must reside within the geographic boundaries of the Indian River School District, be U.S. citizens age 18 or older, and provide identification at the polling place. Residents do not need to be property owners, and voter registration is not required.

People may prove their identity and address with a State of Delaware driver’s license, automobile registration card or ID card; a work ID with photo and address; a credit card or other document identifying the person by photograph and signature; a recent utility bill, rent receipt or business letter setting forth the person’s address; a telephone directory listing in the current issue of the phone book; or any other reasonable document that identifies the person’s address.

Absentee voting is available at Sussex County Department of Elections until noon on March 1. For more information, contact the Department of Elections at (302) 856-5367 or 119 North Race Street in Georgetown. Details are online at http://electionssc.delaware.gov/school_absentee.shtml.

Cuts now, and more coming later

Based on enrollment, the IRSD is already eligible to receive state funding for 30 more staff positions, including administration, but had left those spots empty due to lack of state funds. Last autumn, the IRSD canceled all local Ingram Pond science field trips, reduced school budgets and travel, and made other cuts.

Board members are hoping to do a line-by-line budget review soon. Currently, district staff are compiling data about how local money affects their departments. For example, some educational programs and staff positions were originally funded by Race to the Top money, which has ended.

Everything is up for further scrutiny: paid coaching positions, the International Baccalaureate program, many clubs, district-wide budgets, band and athletic budgets, school budgets and anywhere extra money can be squeezed.

“Everyone thinks it’s just a scare tactic, but the public will understand when there’s no middle-school sports, no lights on the field for Pop Warner,” said IRSD Board Member Jim Fritz.

In addition to an assistant superintendent position that was never filled, five more administrators have already had their contracts not renewed for next year. At least one administrator has left the IRSD for another district.

Fixing problems and moving forward

The November referendum was likely impacted by an audit report released five days before the vote, in which the Delaware State Auditor of Accounts accused the district of lacking in financial policies, as well as questionable spending and alleged improper spending by the district’s former chief financial officer.

IRSD leaders ahead of the March 2 vote have tried to show people what’s improved in the three months since the audit was released.

Some voters are strong supporters of the schools, and some will always vote against a tax increase. But district officials know that taxpayers on both sides of the issue want accountability.

“The No. 1 thing I hear is, ‘What is the board — not the superintendent, not the administration — doing to prevent this from ever happening again?’ and I think we really need to dive into that, because the people expect us to come up with a solution to prevent this from ever happing again, and I agree with that,” Board Member Doug Hudson said.

On one hand, the board has to trust the system, new IRSD Director of Business Jan Steele said, but she welcomed ideas for additional oversight.

She’s spent a lot of time educating the board and the public. The IRSD Referendum Hotline leads directly to her office. She’s walked the board through the multi-step procedure for district purchases, and several board members have said they already feel more knowledgeable about education finance than ever before.

The school board is expected to fast-track several new financial policies on Feb. 27, regarding codes of conduct, internal controls, fixed assets and travel authorization. They are considering the most cost-effective way to perform regular internal audits.

Mark Steele said he envisions a 10-person Community Budget Oversight Committee, in which residents are specifically trained to understand, review and contribute to discussions on IRSD budgets. He also wants to create a long-term district plan that includes funding, enrollment and future planning.

Steele considered retiring in June, after 36 years as a teacher and administrator, but points to his success as principal at Indian River High School: “I have a chance to stay here and do this on a district level. … I want to get this through with community support.”

If the quality of education goes down, the surrounding community suffers, he said. Real estate values depend partly on the reputation of local schools, and the local economy depends partly on the IRSD’s 1,500 staff — an estimated 10 percent of whom could lose their jobs if the district doesn’t get additional funding to meet today’s needs.

But there’s still work ahead.

Jan Steele plans to investigate some residents’ claims that not all households are paying the $12-per-adult capitation rate that is part of taxes assessed for the district.

They’re also considering revamping budget items this year to ensure the payroll fund can cover expenses until the next major tax deposit.

Some people had complaints about things that the IRSD cannot control. For instance, residents would have to request that state legislators consider a different tax structure for school funding.

Also, the student population has grown in all demographics, although immigrant children have gotten the most scrutiny. And the IRSD’s mandate is to educate all children who enter the school district.

“Kids have no hand in being brought here,” Mark Steele said. “It goes back to strength of community. … It’s cheaper for us to deal with those kids today [in school] than to deal with them in 30 years [as a society in general].

Bigger state cuts loom ahead

Even if the referendum passes, it’s not enough to fully fund the district’s needs, and the IRSD still has to cut spending by $5 million just to rebuild its reserves. But with upcoming state funding cuts, that could mean millions more.

And since November, a new wrench was thrown in the system.

Facing a $350 million deficit, the State of Delaware is looking to make drastic cuts in education spending (and all arenas). In December, IRSD officials thought that would mean a $900,000 loss in funding. Now, it could be millions.

“If it does not pass, this will devastate us,” Mark Steele said of the referendum.

With the potential cuts and no referendum funding, the district would be down $10 million to $20 million with no local support.

“The Office of Management & Budget asked the schools to put together a 1.25, 2.5, 5 and 10 percent projection of what the impact of a state funding cut would be,” Mark Steele said. “Every school district had to do this, by the way, not just us.”

For Indian River, that could equal anywhere from $1.2 million to $9.5 million in funding lost, he said.

No one knows what those cuts will be until the General Assembly votes to approve the final budget on June 30.

The State of Delaware could also potentially ask for money back this fiscal year, although nothing has been requested. (“Right now, we are sweating,” Mark Steele said.) But the district didn’t even have that information when planning the referendum.

“The reality is 49 cents is not enough,” said Fritz.

Point reporter Kerin Magill contributed to this story.