State likes proposed location for new Ennis school

Special to the Coastal Point • Submitted: A new Howard T. Ennis School for students with special needs could be located north of Millsboro, as shown in this Preliminary Land Use Service (PLUS) application.Special to the Coastal Point • Submitted: A new Howard T. Ennis School for students with special needs could be located north of Millsboro, as shown in this Preliminary Land Use Service (PLUS) application.The wheels are rolling for a new Howard T. Ennis School building. The State of Delaware appears to like the idea of building a new facility for the special-needs school.

Indian River School District officials said they are encouraged by state-level discussions to transfer a piece of Stockley Center land to build a replacement Ennis School in Georgetown.

Although Ennis is managed by the IRSD, the school serves all Sussex Countians who have significant cognitive delays, up to age 21.

Currently, it’s a tight squeeze for Ennis’s 140 students, plus special staff and medical equipment. Sometimes they can barely fit in the narrow hallways of the old building.

The district needs to rebuild the 47-year-old school completely, without disrupting the students’ education.

As proposed, the new 80,542-square-foot Ennis school would be built on 61 agricultural acres currently held by the state-managed Stockley Center. It is on the southwest corner of Patriots Way and Avenue of Honor (Parcel 133-7.00-8.00), across the street from the Stockley Center, which provides training, healthcare, family services and residential services for people with developmental disabilities.

The IRSD proposed the land transfer, which would save it big money on real estate costs.

Meanwhile, the State pays 100 percent for construction of special schools, so unlike traditional school construction projects, this estimated $44.7-million project doesn’t require public referendum, because the district wouldn’t be contributing local funds.

Although the IRSD hasn’t seen anything in writing, administrators said they have been encouraged by recent meetings with Delaware’s Preliminary Land Use Service (PLUS).

“We met with the PLUS Committee in Dover, and they’re the ones that approve the land that you can build the building on. We’re waiting for their letter of approval,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele.

It seems a perfect fit, officials have said. The land in question was meant to serve the public good. It’s considered “out of play” by the State — meaning it should be developed for a public purpose, such as a school, not private housing or retail.

The idea has gotten a warm response from the Delaware Department of Education and Department of Health & Social Services. They and the IRSD would work with the Delaware Office of Management & Budget to transfer the land to the school district. Then, the typical building brainstorming begins: design, traffic management, soil testing, utilities and more.

“We have not gotten anything in writing, but are awaiting approval,” said to IRSD Director of Business Jan Steele. “We also have to wait and see if the State puts the funding in the Bond Bill. I haven’t seen a copy of the proposed Bond Bill from Gov. [John] Carney. Our conversation with OMB was that we would ask for planning funding for this next year, and construction would begin the following year.”

Fearn-Clendaniel Architects Inc. were hired to review Ennis and found the 46-year-old building to be drastically lacking.

“Conditions are less than ideal,” stated the report. “Ceilings are low, corridors are narrow, and bathrooms are inadequate. … 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 a critical fault for Ennis’s special population.

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

Plus, new playground equipment won’t be installed until they have path forward. After all, the equipment would just have to be ripped out again if/when the school moves.

Because the current Ennis land originally came from the neighboring Delaware Technical Community College, it would return to the college when no longer used for Ennis.

Currently located at 20346 Ennis Road, Ennis is the only IRSD school located west of Route 113. In its new location, it would become the southern neighbor of Sussex Central High School, which is located at 26026 Patriots Way. SCHS is located on a large parcel, upon which IRSD officials envision future middle and elementary school buildings.

Howard T. Ennis isn’t the only school too small for its own good.

In 2016, the State approved IRSD to pursue four capital construction projects: a replacement Howard T. Ennis, an additional elementary school; an additional middle school; and building additions at Sussex Central High School. But in a mad dash to balance the budget for the coming school year, the IRSD Board of Education hasn’t engaged in public discussion of the latter three projects, which would all require local funds and a public referendum.