IR board OKs Ennis improvements, tables new middle school

Date Published: 
May 23, 2014

The Indian River School District Board of Education this week dusted off a conversation it began two years ago: considering a new middle school.

Overcrowding in schools is a trend the district has watched warily for several years. When considering how to implement full-day kindergarten in 2012, the board suggested a new school, but the State of Delaware instead approved 38 new classrooms at existing schools.

For the last three years, the IRSD has graduated around 550 students annually. Meanwhile, kindergarten classes have swelled from the 700s to 896 this year. This large bubble will squeeze into middle and high school in the next decade.

Two new classrooms at Selbyville Middle School and eight at the Georgetown Elementary/Middle School complex may not hold them all.

To begin a major capital project, the district must submit a Certificate of Necessity to the State by July 1. They may submit multiple ideas, but they cannot add anything after July 1.

In 2012, the IRSD submitted three options: build 32 new classrooms at existing schools, at $10 million total — an option that passed public referendum in 2013; build a new elementary school; or build a new middle school.

The State of Delaware initially rejected the $26.3 million middle school, the local share of which would be $10.5 million.

“This is a very important decision. I don’t think the board … is ready to discuss it,” said Board President Charles Bireley, noting that some current board members weren’t around for the last referendum process.

“We spent some time looking at projected enrollment increases and recognize we need to be thinking at least five years ahead,” said Superintendent Susan Bunting. “We need to think about what our district will be in five years.”

Two years into the process, ground has not been broken on the 38 classrooms.

“Openly, I think we agreed there’s a need for a middle school,” Board Member Rodney Layfield said. “I’m committed to the six additions. We have to show the public we’re being frugal with their money. Taxpayers should know we completed this task before we ask for a new middle school. There is a need. … I want it to be a good experience.”

“Certainly I think a new middle school is needed, [but] Rodney took the words right out of my mouth,” said Board Member James Fritz. He suggested they get their statistics in order and really be ready — especially since surrounding districts “have not been receptive” to recent referendums and “the State has put up so many roadblocks” for the current construction, which has been slowed by the permitting process.

“We need to look into the sale of the Vlasic plant” in Millsboro, said Board Member Nina Lou Bunting. If the proposed chicken plant opens there, “then we’ll have big reason to be asking for another school.”

The board agreed to discuss the issue further at their next meeting.

Meanwhile, the board unanimously approved (with Donald Hattier absent) a Certificate of Necessity for the Howard T. Ennis School. The IRSD will submit a $1 million project to improve heating and air conditioning, conversion to natural gas and handicapped-accessible furniture and playground equipment, to be included in the state’s upcoming Bond Bill, with support from the Governor’s Advisory Council for Exceptional Citizens.

As a special-needs school, Ennis doesn’t have to follow the same regulations involving going to public referendum. If the State approves it, and depending on Delaware’s financial well-being, the State may pay the entire $1 million estimated project cost. Or, it may demand the usual 40 percent local share from IRSD residents. Past Ennis projects have been funded in both ways, Chief Financial Officer Patrick Miller said.

“The CN for Howard T. Ennis is basically semantics,” said Layfield. “It’s not preparing for a referendum. It’s a way to show the need.”

In other school board news:

• The district has officially received the first certificates of compliance for Comprehensive School Safety Plans. Randall “R.L.” Hughes was a familiar face at the board meeting, there to present the certification. Formerly on the IR board and now on the state school board, Hughes visited on official capacity with his day job, as principal deputy of Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security (DSHS).

“All schools in the state will reach compliance, but Indian River is three months ahead,” he said, especially proud to have participated as an IRSD board member.

As a district, the IRSD was just months behind the individual pilot schools chosen to complete the state’s first comprehensive safety plans. Eventually, all 232 public schools will have specific plans for any emergency, from allergic reactions to bomb threats.

The certification notes that the IRSD created school safety teams and plans, as well as conducting tabletop exercises and drills. The State-mandated plans also line up with emergency response, so firefighters and police have a working relationship with the schools.

Hughes thanked the IRSD leaders who embraced and improved the early system, including administration and Delaware State Police.

All public school districts in the state are on target to complete their school safety plans and meet the September compliance deadline. Certificates will be awarded to each as they complete the requirements.

• There was discussion, but no action on changing the hours of parent-teacher conferences. Typically, different school levels host conferences on different nights, but this year, there was some overlap, due to snow days. Historically, conferences are always in the evening, and it’s bound to conflict with someone’s schedule, Fritz noted. Bunting said the issue was raised by concerned citizens.

• The district should reconsider proposed school hours, argued parent and teacher Theresa Luzier, during public comments. She expressed concerns about releasing elementary school students before middle school students each afternoon, citing many reasons. For instance, she said, parents often rely on older children to look after the younger ones until they leave work.

As a teacher, she said she sees athletes and coaches leaving school early, even for home games (with the extended schedule making up for this year’s snow days).

“Those athletes are losing a lot of valuable instruction time,” plus hours needed for more complex homework and, eventually, sleep, she added. Additoinally, Luzier said, finding someone to cover that teacher’s last class is “extremely difficult” between teachers’ own training and planning periods. Later classes also mean parking is an issue during home games.

If the IRSD wants to use the same bus for multiple schools, she said, she recommended sending middle-schoolers home first.

“They get on and off the buses quicker than the elementary school students, so you can reuse their buses much [faster],” Luzier added.

• Although the Policy Committee said they were very impressed with a presentation by Selbyville Middle School students arguing in favor of flip-flops, the board showed no movement to allow the footwear in schools.

• Despite concerns about moving Long Neck Elementary playground equipment to make room for building additions, it was reported that it looks like the equipment could just be unbolted and moved.

• The board unanimously approved a permanent easement for the Delaware Department of Transportation at Long Neck Elementary. It was a standard application, but if refused, could slow down the construction/permitting process.

• Fences have been erected at Lord Baltimore Elementary, and a roadway to improve parking is next.

• Sussex Central High School is discussing plans to add an academic pathway, so students get credit for academic classes over and above the regular course load and don’t have to try to squeeze in another traditional pathway, such as music, business, agriculture and so on.

• The board unanimously approved a furniture contingency request for Millsboro Middle School to receive an additional 60 desks and chairs.

• The board recognized Indian River High School students for Delaware FFA Convention first place, Jared Ryan, Neena Oli, Brianna McCloskey and Ciara Blaser; Academic All-Conference, Rachel Hudson, Callie McDowell, Anamaria Impastato, McKenzie Collins, Andrew White, Sarah Buchler, Maggie Ford, Paige Troublefield, Josh Kleinstuber, Brandon Galliher, Ashlyn Calhoun, Kylie Ucman and Hayden McWilliams; and Indian River Education Association scholar H.F. Wilgus.

• Southern Delaware School of the Arts’ Neil Beahan was also recognized as Delaware’s Middle Level Principal of the Year; Kevin and Jennifer Cordrey got the Outstanding Secondary School Award from the Delaware Association of Agriscience Educators; and Mike Williams and Georgetown Middle School got the Superstars in Education Award.

• The district’s retirees were also honored. “The legacy that you have left behind is yours. This district has been successful for many, many years, and it will continue to be successful for many years because of what you have done,” Hughes told them.

A special school board meeting will be held Monday, June 16, at the IRSD Educational Complex in Selbyville. The regular board meeting is June 23, at 7 p.m. at Sussex Central High School.