Take 2: IRSD prepares for second referendum

District expects nearly $1M in state budget cuts

Date Published: 
December 23, 2016

After their recent referendum failed by a mere 20 votes, Indian River School District officials are ready to try again. The school board this week approved holding a second current-expense referendum on Thursday, March 2, (inclement weather date, March 16), in hopes of having at least slightly better success.

If approved, the 49-cent tax increase per $100 of assessed property value would raise an estimated $7,350,000 for the district at a time when student numbers and expenses have jumped.

“We need the referendum because expenses have gone up so much, we can’t cut enough,” said Board Member James “Jim” Fritz.

Meanwhile, the State of Delaware is slashing budgets, which means the Department of Education might need to cut about $15 million in school funding, statewide.

Discussions are still ongoing at the state level, but IRSD Superintendent Susan Bunting said it appears that the IRSD will lose about $900,000 in state funding in next year’s budget. Schools and the DOE found that the simplest cut is to require district to pay another 10 percent of transportation and education sustainment funds. For IRSD, that means paying another $600,000 for busing and $300,000 for educational support.

“It’s going to double our local transportation budget … if the legislators agree to that,” said IRSD Director of Business Jan Steele.

Referendum numbers

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

• 33 cents — Student enrollment growth ($4.95 million total, for teachers, desks and supplies, still needed as student population steadily grows)

• 8 cents — School safety ($1.2 million, for salaries and safety improvements, slightly decreased from the last referendum)

• 8 cents — Transportation, technology, textbooks, student organizations ($1.2 million for new and continuing expenses, slightly increased from the last referendum, to include transportation)

The approval of a second referendum was not a unanimous decision. The “nay” votes once again came from Board Members Heather Statler and Leolga Wright (both of District 3/Millsboro), who in September said they would have preferred a lower price.

Earmarking the funds will help free up other local discretionary monies, Fritz said. It will still take four or five years for the IRSD to replenish its discretionary fund to a comfortable level, said Board Member Rodney Layfield.

“The district needs to take a hard look at expenditures,” Fritz said. “I’m not in favor of cutting any teachers. … This is an opportunity, and we owe it to the public to review our total dollars.”

Bunting had previously said that 10 percent of the IRSD staff could lose their jobs in 2017 if the current-expense referendum doesn’t pass.

This month, the board re-evaluated that statement. Programs and less-essential staff would be cut first. Behind the scenes, IRSD staff are already combing the budget for potential cuts.

“If we’ve got to cut, the last people that will be cut are classroom teaching positions,” said Personnel Director Celeste Bunting. However, the newest teachers may be the first to go, and more senior specialists could step down into those teaching positions.

Another option may be for the teachers or other unions to accept a pay cut. Several administrators said some teachers expressed a willingness to do that, if it would save their coworkers’ jobs. (The paraprofessionals did this in previous years.)

Bunting encouraged a March referendum deadline to be set because most neighboring school districts hire staff in spring. If the worst happens, and layoffs are required, IRSD employees deserve to have a maximum amount of time to job-hunt, Bunting said.

Transparency on everyone’s mind

Decisions on the new referendum were made in a public meeting on Dec. 14. However, the meeting was held as a special meeting in a conference room at district headquarters, rather than as part of a regular meeting at a school, which typically carries more pomp, circumstance and public attention.

That’s why, on Dec. 19, Fenwick Island resident Mark Tingle accused the school board of secrecy. There was no discussion of a referendum at the regular November or December meetings, and the Dec. 14 agenda was vague, apart from listing “Referendum” and a copy of the vote results.

“When does the public get [information]?” Tingle asked. “It’s like it’s all done in secret … and you’ve all voted it through.

He further warned, “You’ve had the luxury of having no one go against you. I think you’re going to have people actively campaign against it. … Good luck getting it though.”

Indeed, there is no audio recording posted online from the Dec. 14 meeting, although Delaware Code now requires all school boards to audio from meetings where votes occurred. Regular board meetings were recently moved to school auditoriums, where the audio is much stronger, and regular-meeting recordings have been posted online within a matter of days.

The teachers union also emphasized the importance of board transparency and oversight.

“I think the board needs to step up also and take part-ownership. The whole board is making changes here. The public wants transparency throughout,” said J.R. Emanuele of the Indian River Education Association (IREA).

The teachers group said they were grateful for more information to address their own misconceptions. Bunting had emailed them a letter to explain the referendum and its consequences more clearly. That also garnered support.

“There is no doubt the next referendum is absolutely needed. The ones who are ultimately affected are the students and the employees,” said Emanuele. “We’re there to help support the next referendum. We’re in the trenches every day with these kids.”

Students also support their schools, having seen the growth firsthand. Sussex Central High School’s student government representative said they’re excited that 100 seniors will have reached voting age by March.

An audit update

The referendum was possibly impacted by an audit report released five days before the vote, in which the Delaware State Auditor of Accounts accused the district of questionable and imprudent spending, including alleged improper spending by former CFO Patrick Miller.

In a recent exit conference, the Auditor’s Office discussed a number of changes with IRSD administrators: more detail in board meeting minutes; new financial policies and staff training; discontinuing use of signature stamps; no IRSD food purchases for any staff member; and more. They also discussed potential reparations of improperly spent funds.

Although it’s common practice, the Auditor’s Office frowns on public funds being used to purchase sympathy, congratulations and retirement cards or gifts. Although the district administrators said they generally feel those are appropriate expenses to reward employee dedication, there may be room for the unions to take over such purchases.

As time goes on, the district will continue checking in with the Auditor’s Office.

Because individual employees cannot be discussed in public, the audit discussion continued in executive session. Afterward, Board President Charles Bireley said that the IRSD itself could not pursue legal action against Miller, even if desired. The Delaware Attorney General holds that power and will be the one that makes that decision.