IRSD property tax rate nudges down 3 cents

Some Sussex County taxpayers will see a slight decrease in their property taxes this autumn.

Indian River School District property taxes will decrease by 3 cents, from $3.097 to $3.067 per $100 of assessed property value. (Sussex County property values have not been reassessed in decades, so the assessed value is much lower than the real estate value.)

“I think we had a really good year. … I feel the financial staff has done an excellent job this year getting everything taken care of,” said Jan Steele, IRSD director of business.

“I suggest we decrease our tax rate by 3 cents,” Steele recommended to the school board in June.

Changes to the tax-rate breakdown were as follows:

• Current expense remains $2.35 (the public changes this by referendum);

• Debt service decreased from $0.194 to $0.192 (the board changes this based on IR’s repaying debt on building projects);

• Tuition decreased from $0.520 to $0.480 (the board changes this based on yearly needs for special programs)

• Minor capital improvement funds increased from $0.033 to $0.045 (the board changes this to match the State’s contribution for this repair fund);

• Capitation remains $12 per person ($7 for current expense and $5 for debt service).

After tightening their belts heavily this past school year, the IRSD has made significant strides in rebuilding its savings account. They expect to finish this fiscal year with about $8.5 million in their reserve fund.

The 2017 current-expense referendum was based on a need for more funding just to keep the lights on and rebuild the district’s savings fund.

The reserve fund is necessary for two reasons. First, the fiscal year begins in July, but property taxes don’t arrive until autumn. Districts need a reserve fund for payroll for those few months. The IRSD is just finishing its “barebones” year, in which Steele did major finagling to meet payroll during the slow months, especially when the State of Delaware requested that districts give money back during the State’s own tight year.

Also, it’s just good financial policy to save. Steele has repeatedly said that school districts traditionally build a reserve that depletes with inflation and other expenses, which then needs replenishing with a new referendum roughly five years later.

“The measures that you have put in place have been very successful,” said Dave Marvel, member of the Citizens Budget Oversight Committee, in January. “That’s what taxpayers were looking for: Could you turn this thing around? It appears that you’re heading in the right direction.”

That will be important when the district likely goes to public referendum in the 2018-2019 school year, for building and renovation projects, said Marvel, a longtime coach and teacher.

“We are trying to be very conscientious about lowering it wherever we can,” Steele said.

“Continue to be frugal with your budget, and wherever we can scrape a few pennies together, let’s do it,” said audience member Bob Maloney at the June meeting.

Sussex County will send property tax bills in mid-August. Payments will be due Sept. 30.

The IRSD’s detailed financial reports are available by viewing the June 25 agenda at

Building projects

The IRSD continues working toward building projects to increase student capacity. The board is brainstorming a new Sussex Central High School building for roughly 2,400 students. The current school would be repurposed as a middle school, and the current Millsboro Middle School would be renovated into an additional elementary school. Also, Selbyville Middle School and Indian River High School would each get six or eight classrooms.

Fearn-Clendaniel Architects was awarded a $47,500 contract for architectural services, as IRSD requests Certificates of Necessity (CNs) from the State. Because it is a professional-services contact, the district didn’t need to request bids.

If the State approves the CNs, the IRSD would have permission to take the funding question to public referendum.

In other IRSD news:

• With a workforce of more than 1,400 people, there are plenty of IRSD retirees each year.

“I’d like to personally thank you … for the years of services you have given your school district,” said Mark Steele, adding that he hopes to join their ranks soon. “I think you’ll have the opportunity to kick back and enjoy life, and I’m hope you’ll take that opportunity.”

• The board approved eight new athletic uniform designs for Indian River High School, worth $19,823 (not including baseball uniforms). The IRSD is finishing its one-year moratorium on extra spending, so sports teams are now working back up to their regular uniform replacement schedule. The money is already in the budget for uniforms that were last replaced in 2013 (softball, boys’ soccer, boys’ lacrosse and boys’ tennis) and in 2014 (baseball, wrestling, cross country and girls’ soccer).

• The board finally approved a Student Activity Funding Procedure, which outlines how clubs and organizations can request money from the district.

Funding will support the purchase of necessary supplies and fees. Annually, each school will submit a list of organizations they feel should be eligible to receive funding. Each group will submit a budget request to the business director for any supplies, fees and other unforeseen expenses.

She will meet with reps from each group to further discuss their needs and request. The board will have final approval, but after allocation, the groups will determine the best use of the funds. “Preference should be given to organizations who are within their first three years of programming,” the text suggests.

For last-minute or unexpected opportunities, the superintendent (or his designee) and the business director may also approve additional funding requests throughout the year, as needed. That information will then be provided to the board.

• The board declined to re-join the Delaware School Boards Association, due to the $15,105 cost. Although Superintendent Mark Steele recommended joining the group, which has become a stronger advocate for school districts, the board voted 6-3-0 to decline. Board Members Donald Hattier, Heather Statler and Leolga Wright said they were in favor of re-joining. (Board Member Jim Hudson was absent.)

• IRHS coach Jim Barnes thanked the board for approving the new boys’ volleyball club team, which won third place in the state tournament and featured three All-State players, including Rookie of the Year.

• Resident Darryl Burton requested that Millsboro Middle School’s running track be reopened to the public as a safe and convenient place to exercise.

• The IRSD finished part one of a two-year Special Education Focus Schools Project. The goal is to take a “deep look at the level of special education being offered,” the good, the bad or room for improvement, said Judy Brittingham, supervisor of special education. She shared highlights of good work done at focus schools IRHS, Phillip C. Showell Elementary, Selbyville Middle, North Georgetown Elementary and Sussex Central High schools. Next year, they’ll review the Georgetown Kindergarten Center, Georgetown Middle, Lord Baltimore Elementary and Howard T. Ennis schools.

“This work has probably given us the best idea of what needs to be done districtwide. … We’re excited to begin year two,” Brittingham said.

• With new tech comes new responsibility. The IRSD passed Policy KBG “Social Media Monitoring,” including rules for district-managed Facebook and Twitter pages. That encourages comments and questions from the public, but also creates guidelines for when inappropriate or irrelevant comments will be removed.

• Visitors to schools are already screened before accessing the main building. The board reiterated safety procedures with edits to Policy KK “Visitors to Schools,” noting that new Ident-A-Kid software will screen visitors’ IDs.

• Grading Policy IKA passed its first reading. All AP/IB/AP grades would automatically be weighted higher, with bonuses for passing the qualifying exams. Currently, the bonus weights only apply if the student sits for the exam.

Also, the parent/guardian of any student in danger of failing for the marking period, semester/school year would be contacted in a reciprocal manner (i.e., phone call, e-mail, parent conference).

The next regular monthly meeting of the Indian River Board of Education has been rescheduled for Monday, July 16, at 7 p.m. at Indian River High School.

By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter