Local students will be going to school in portable trailers. How long they're in those temporary classrooms is up to voters.

The Indian River School District will go to public referendum again on Tuesday, May 7, this time requesting just enough money to build a new school and classrooms throughout the district, but not requesting a permanent property tax increase to supply the additional space.

After the Feb. 5 referendum failed by a margin of 55-45 percent, the IRSD will delete the second question, which was a current-expense tax increase of 9 cents (per $100 of assessed value) for utility costs, maintenance supplies, transportation expenses and the local share of staff salaries.

After a long discussion on Feb. 25, the school board has decided to try again.

The goal is a brand-new Sussex Central High School in Millsboro; four new classrooms at Selbyville Middle School; and eight new classrooms at Indian River High School in Dagsboro. By adding one new school, making a few additions and changing attendance boundaries, they would create a domino effect that provides some relief to more schools throughout the district.

“After looking at how many temporary buildings we're going to need and how they're spread out and how that affects our security, I don't think we have much of a choice but to go ahead and try again,” said Board Member Donald Hattier. “The longer we delay, the worse the problem becomes, and it takes three to five years to get a school up and make any changes. I think we have to do it.

“The reality is, the situation isn't going to get any better. It's going to get worse — all the construction and development that's happening in our county, and it's not just one demographic,” said Board Member James “Jim” Fritz.

“On one end of the district, we have a lot of senior citizens moving into the district. On the other, we have a lot of families — hence that is where our growth and our capacity is needed,” said Superintendent Mark Steele. “We don't have any choice. We're so packed in certain parts of our school district, we don't have any relief.

“Next year's going to be a year we start seeing secondary schools skyrocket” in enrollment, Steele continued. “We're going to need space one way or the other. Even if we were to vote this evening to go forward with a referendum, we are going to have to use portable” classrooms.

This school year, enrollment has increased by nearly 200 students just since Sept. 30. Selbyville Middle School will likely need portable classroom soon. Indian River High School will need them in 2023 or 2024. Sussex Central High School will need up to 15 portable classrooms on the front lawn of the school, starting with a batch this autumn. The cost is $130,000 per trailer, per five-year lease. It's not an ideal investment, since the IRSD has to pay for walkways, equipment and electricity for the portable classrooms but doesn't even keep the trailers.

“The reality is, even if we passed a referendum today, it's going to be four years before a building is built,” said Fritz. “Portables in the high school, elementary — wait 'til someone's child is caught in a rainstorm, slips on the ice, security... Basically, all the security [upgrades] we've done goes right out the window.”

IRSD taxpayers only pay for 40 percent of new projects. The State pays the majority of construction costs in a 60/40 split. For example, of the total $158,513,965 construction bill, IRSD taxpayers would pay $63,405,400.

If approved, the tax increase would not hit all at once. At the most, it would be 35 cents per $100 of assessed value in the 2023 fiscal year. Afterwards, that rate would decrease every year until the construction debt is paid off.

The school board voted, 7-1, to try the referendum again, with just Question 1, with Board Members W. Scott Collins and Rodney Layfield absent.

Fritz dissented, he said, because he didn't want to bring another current-expense referendum in two years, and he questioned whether people's minds would change for a smaller tax increase: “They don't like the demographic of the schools and who's paying tax dollars.”

But Board Member Gerald “Jerry” Peden Jr. disagreed.

“Listening to the people in my area … the consensus out here is ‘The board is wasteful with money.' We need to tighten our belts. We need to watch what we spend. They thought, Question 2, we didn't need that, so that brought down the entire referendum. That's just what I heard.”

Without the current-expense portion, the IRSD will face another tightening of belts, but administrators said they believe if they save $250,000 to $300,000 per year, the IRSD could have enough money for the textbooks and staff a new school requires. But they'll also now be leasing portable classrooms. The school board has very hard decisions ahead.

Or, they may end up needing a new current-expense referendum in four years anyway. Because of Delaware's funding mechanism for schools, most districts typically need to request a current-expense referendum every five years, just to adjust for inflation, as IRSD Director of Business Jan Steele has repeatedly said.

“Usually it's a five-year cycle before schools — all schools — have to go out [to referendum] for just general operating-expense increase. At that point, we would just combine those needs,” said Jan Steele.

In the end, voters are responsible for making informed decisions, but the administrators acknowledge they need to understand why people didn't support the school district.

“I really think we need … to try to find out from people the root of the ‘no' votes,” said Board Member Heather Statler. Although she complimented the prior outreach in explaining IRSD's situation, “We need to do a better job of getting out there and understanding what their concerns are as to why they did vote ‘no.' … We know it goes beyond the issues of space.”

The IRSD needed about 700 more positive votes to pass the Feb. 5 referendum, which Mark Steele said was the second-worst referendum result the IRSD has ever had.

School districts are permitted to retry referendums. This time, they have to get a “yes” vote by June 30 in order to be included in the state budget. Delaware is already being careful with money, as Mark Mark Steele said they're only approving projects to relieve enrollment/capacity issues. The IRSD was one of the few districts to fit that need.

Meanwhile, the State will fund 100 percent of a new Howard T. Ennis School for students with special needs. The Georgetown school would move to north Millsboro, just across the street from Sussex Central High School. This month, designs continue and the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) submitted a letter of no objection, which puts the ball in Sussex County's court to vote on subdividing the property, currently managed by the Stockley Center nursing facility.

By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.