It’s time to start building a plan. Indian River School District has scheduled a special meeting to discuss the district’s future building and major capital improvement needs.
The Major Capital Planning Committee meeting will now be held on Wednesday, April 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Sussex Central High School auditorium. This public meeting was rescheduled from March 20.
The school board will invite district administrators to share current and projected enrollment figures; review the district’s 2016 Certificate of Necessity submission to the State of Delaware; and accept community input on ways to relieve overcrowding in district schools.
Sussex Central High School is located at 26026 Patriots Way in Georgetown.
IR School Board have emphasized the need for additional schools, especially in the Millsboro and Georgetown area. While awaiting a permanent solution, IRSD staff have been researching the price of trailers to double as classrooms — just in case.
IRSD’s rapid population growth mirrors the rest of Sussex County, as new housing developments and businesses spring up.
Through the Major Capital Planning Committee, the school board members hope to have many discussions together and with district staff. All meetings should be open to the public, regardless of location.
IRSD has to work fast. Their full proposals are due by Aug. 31. By autumn, the state should decide whether to grant the Certificate of Necessity for each project. Once the need is established, and if the State has enough money to pay its share of the project, the school district hosts a major capital improvement referendum, in which the public votes on whether to raise local taxes. The CN expires after one year.
This is almost a repeat of the winter of 2015 to 2016, when the school district hammered out a request for expansion. In October, 2016, the Department of Education approved four Certificates of Necessity (CNs) for major construction: a new elementary school at the Ingram Pond property in Millsboro; a new middle school on the Sussex Central High School property north of Millsboro; 26 additional classrooms, expanded cafeteria and another gymnasium at Sussex Central High School; and replacement of the Howard T. Ennis School building in Georgetown.
At the time, DOE rejected renovation/expansion of the cafeteria at Phillip C. Showell Elementary School in Selbyville and stairwell/mechanical room repairs at Lord Baltimore Elementary School in Ocean View. In 2012, the State had rejected IRSD’s idea for a new middle or elementary school, only agreeing to let IRSD to tack 38 new classrooms and a new kitchen at seven schools.
In the next seven years, Superintendent Mark Steele expects natural growth of more than 1,600 students or 15 percent of the current 10,700 enrollment. That number doesn’t even include the influx of families moving to Sussex County. That’s more than double the size of a standard 750-student elementary school. In the past seven years, IRSD has grown by over 1,800 students, but only added 38 physical classrooms.
Land locked down
IRSD already owns most, if not all of the land. Their small Ingram Pond science center sits on 179-acre parcel on Godwin School Road. A new elementary school would relieve pressure for East Millsboro Elementary School, thus making room for some Long Neck students.
Sussex Central High School sits on a 155-acre parcel that could fit another two schools, if needed, although only a middle school is proposed there.
Right now, across the street from SCHS, the State of Delaware is currently processing a transfer 29 acres from Delaware Health and Social Services to Indian River. Since the Stockley Center wasn’t using that empty field, a new Howard T. Ennis School seemed the next best use for public land. Next, the state legislature must sign off, and the county approve a subdivision of land.
Ennis on different schedule
Planning for Howard T. Ennis School is already underway. As a special school administered by the IRSD, Ennis actually serves students countywide with significant cognitive delays, from very young children to age 21.
The state pays 100 percent for special schools, so Ennis only needed state approval, not a public referendum or local funds.
The good news is that Ennis doesn’t need to rely on public referendum. The bad news is that competition for state money is fierce.
This summer, Superintendent Mark Steele hopes the state budget will allocate about $2.9 million for planning, which should take about nine to twelve months.
State Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. recently toured Ennis to see “hallways that are crowded with equipment that needs to be used for the kids, marks on the doors when wheelchairs go in and out, so he got a firsthand view of why it was needed,” said Superintendent Mark Steele.
That’s why residents need to advocate for Ennis and other schools, said George H. Bunting Jr. a former state senator and education advocate.
“It’s better that a lot of the parents or grandparents that are close to the legislators … call them up on the phone, tell them what the need is,” Bunting told Coastal Point.
“Letter writing is okay, but I’d rather see you pick up the phone and call an individual legislator and say ‘we need this’ … You get things done that way,” Bunting said. “Right now the big issue is getting on the list [for money] … you’ve got all this politics you’ve got to get through,” Bunting said.
Public paying attention
Some people in the community are still wary of the school district’s plight, remembering the State Auditor’s less-than-flattering October 2016 report accusing the school board and former CFO of weak financial policies and some financial mismanagement.
By then, the district had abandoned its quest for new school buildings, because that year’s state budget and IR’s own local funds were dangerously low.
That timing was bad luck because a month later, IRSD hosted a current expense referendum — which originally failed by 20 votes — to increase the baseline of operating money from local taxes.
The referendum passed in spring of 2017, and after severe tightening of the belts, IRSD has nearly rebuilt its financial reserves to the $15 million goal.
“I urge you to go to public referendum to build much needed schools in the Indian River School District,” Bunting told the school board this spring. “I cannot remember in my tenure as legislature as many leaders from Sussex County, serving in high places in Dover.”
This year, many Sussex County natives or IRSD graduates have key leadership positions, including Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, Department of Education Secretary Susan Bunting, Speaker of the House Pete Schwarzkopf and locals on key committees for Delaware General Assembly finance, education and bond bill.
The school district website is www.irsd.net and phone number is (302) 436-1000.