IRSD official count tops 10,600 students

Date Published: 
Oct. 27, 2017

Every autumn, Delaware schools take a “snapshot” of the student population. On Sept. 30, Indian River School District officially counted 10,619 students.

“If we keep the same growth pattern, we’re going to eclipse 11,000 in the next five years, probably more like 11,500 to 12,000 students,” Superintendent Mark Steele told the IRSD Board of Education in October.

This 154-student increase is less severe than the 245 average annual increase IRSD has seen in each of the previous seven years.

The September number is the basis for most State funding, including the State’s share of salaries.

Although the student population only increased by 154, the teaching units have increased by about 26. This year, the State will contribute funding toward 818.89 teaching positions, compared to last year’s 792.45.

What’s striking is that 23 of the 26 new positions are directly related to special education.

Although this method is based on population, it’s still frustrating to districts because students will continue to enroll throughout the school year, moving to the area or for other reasons. Districts will not receive any additional State funding based on latecomers.

Exactly this time last year, IRSD was brainstorming how to build several additional schools. Recognizing how jam-packed the schools are, the State approved IRSD to pursue four capital improvement projects: a new elementary school in Millsboro; a new middle school north of Millsboro; expansions to Sussex Central High School; and replacement of the Howard T. Ennis School building in Georgetown.

Except for the State-funded Ennis School, the board hasn’t pursued taking these projects to public referendum, instead spending the year trying to pass a current-expense referendum in spring that would simply keep the lights on.

This autumn, Steele reminded the board that the pressure is still mounting, like at Sussex Central, which is about 115 students over its 1,500 capacity.

“We are behind the 8-ball, as a district,” said board Vice President Rodney Layfield. “We’ve been fiscally responsible for many, many years. I think we continue to be. But we’re in crisis mode.”

The board’s challenge is balancing school choice with school capacity. They were happy to attract out-of-district students, thereby attracting the dollars that follow. But there’s no longer enough room in many of the schools to enroll every Milford, Seaford or Cape Henlopen student who wants to come over.

In fact, this is the first year that IRSD will take a net loss of about $650,000 on school choice, said Business Director Jan Steele.

For instance, she said, many students are attracted to the expanding Sussex Academy charter school in Georgetown and Cape Henlopen’s new Route 24 elementary school.

“I think our elementary schools are full. They’re crowded,” Jan Steele said earlier this month.

“We have the programs, but not the space,” agreed former administrator Gary Brittingham.

Districts must follow specific rules regarding school choice. This month, IRSD approved a more streamlined policy (JECC-A “School Choice Program”).

When competing for spots, the top four priorities remain for returning students, geographic students and siblings of district students. After that, they give priority to district and then non-district students already in the kindergarten center, fifth or eighth grades and preparing to enter the next building level. Next would be children of school employees, all other district students, and finally, any non-district students.

This removes any priority for students based on their daycare or parents’ workplace being located geographically within the district.

This year, IRSD will also join most other Delaware schools in accepting choice applications online at www.SchoolChoiceDE.org.

In other school district news:

• Indian River High School has permission to purchase new marching band uniforms at an estimated $72,000 maximum. The money is already earmarked and not taken from referendum funds. IRSD saves annually in a band uniform depreciation fund. Both high schools are in a 10-year replacement cycle.

• As part of her Miss Delaware platform, Rebeca Bristow helped facilitate installation of a POW/MIA Chair of Honor memorial at Sussex Central.

• The board officially thanked the New Century Club, a community organization that donated real estate property in Georgetown, which IRSD is currently selling to make a profit.

• With more than 70,000 elementary schools in the United States, East Millsboro Elementary was one of about 260 to win a National Blue Ribbon School Award this year.

The IRSD Board of Education’s next regular meeting is Monday, Nov. 27, at 7 p.m. at Indian River High School.