School board to vote on referendum plans

Numbers are falling into place in the Indian River School District as its Board of Education steps closer to public referendum for a new school and upgrades to four more.

But it could cost less than they originally anticipated, even a few years ago.

The State of Delaware has approved all three Certificates of Necessity, for a brand-new Sussex Central High School, plus four classrooms at Selbyville Middle School and eight classrooms at Indian River High School.

On Nov. 26, the school board is expected to vote to take the matter to public referendum in February of 2019.

“It’s going to be an interesting case, because we will be able to show that, by doing it this this way, we will be able to save the local residents a lot of money,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele.

At Nov. 19 committee meetings, Steele shared the current referendum proposal: an additional 45 cents per $100 assessed property value. (The school board has not discussed that figure together.)

A referendum would likely include two portions: capital expense for the one-time building and furnishing costs, plus current expense, for the ongoing maintenance, staff and curriculum.

For capital expense, construction funding would be spread out over four years, so the local share of $63,405,400 would build up to a maximum of 35.24 cents per $100 of assessed value in 2023, then slide back down to zero, like a 20-year mortgage.

For the current-expense element, the IRSD would also need ongoing money for new expenses, such as custodians, secretaries, counselors, specials teachers, maintenance, utilities and curriculum. That annual $1,563,500 would equal a permanent 9.8-cent increase per $100 of assessed property value.

(The current IRSD tax rate is $3.067 per $100 of assessed property values. Sussex County property values have not been reassessed in decades, so the assessed value is much lower than the real estate value.)

The major project would also make room for minimal-cost renovations that would have big impacts. The current Sussex Central High School facility would be repurposed as a middle school, while the current Millsboro Middle School would become an additional elementary school.

Millsboro Middle would need very few renovations to become an elementary school. For instance, young children are mostly expected to use standard-sized toilets, like they would at home. Moreover, the school board might try to fit the renovation costs (such as new playgrounds and so forth) into a future budget, so maybe that $498,500 won’t need to be another 3.1 cents of referendum money.

“We’re able then to reuse what we have to handle our capacity issues in the north,” said Steele, proud of the plan to “utilize what we’ve got, build just what we need.”

The State would pay the majority of costs, in a 60/40 split. For example, IRSD taxpayers would cover $63,405,400 of the total construction cost of $158,513,965.

Architectural designs have not begun for the three schools, despite rumors to the contrary. But the IRSD already owns all the land it needs for them. The replacement SCHS would be built next to the existing high school on Patriots Way Road, just north of Millsboro. SMS, built to a capacity of 723 students, would be able to fit 100 more students in new four classrooms. IRHS, built to a capacity of 1,000 students, could fit 200 more in eight classrooms.

Steele said he has heard public support from the civic groups he’s already visited, and “people seem to be pleased with the decisions the board has made, the money we’ve saved,” he said.

If the school board approves a February referendum, then they have two months to file the paperwork and sell it to the public.

“We’ll be ready,” Mark Steele said. “I’m not running into a lot of opposition in these meetings. Most people attending the meetings seem to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

If the referendum passes, the IRSD would need to get on the State of Delaware’s bond bill for funding, and then they hope to start drawing in July.

Perhaps it’s good, Mark Steele said, that the IRSD couldn’t afford a referendum three years ago, when they had proposed two new schools and a high-school renovation, since the new plan costs less and better fixes the problems.

But IRSD students are feeling the squeeze of overcrowded schools until then. The district will still need temporary classrooms.

“We’re still looking at four to five years before we’re in a new building,” said Finance Director Jan Steele, who originated the shifting-schools plan.

But portable trailers or other makeshift designs are a topic for another day.

A new Howard T. Ennis School is also in the works, but as a county-wide school for special needs, it will be 100 percent state-funded. The IRSD recently received about $3 million to begin its design. Meanwhile, county and state agencies are working through the red tape to officially split and transfer the Stockley Center land to the school district.

The next regular monthly meeting of the Indian River Board of Education will be Monday, Nov. 26, at 7 p.m. at Indian River High School.


By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter