IRSD turns to operational and reserve funds to function

The Indian River School District is brainstorming temporary financial solutions until the public approves a permanent fix.

To build a needed new school, the district had hoped to use state funds and a local tax increase. Since the local referendum failed twice, the IRSD has to alleviate overcrowding issues in another way, by draining their everyday operational funds and the reserve fund they had just rebuilt (with help from the 2016/2017 referendum).

“We can’t take anything off the table, because we’re looking to grow,” Superintendent Mark Steele told the school board at a brainstorming session on June 10.

No decisions were made on June 10, and the board could approve a mixture of their top six options. They’ll mull the proposals and continue discussions at their regular meeting Monday, June 24, at 7 p.m. at Sussex Central High School.

Although the price tags haven’t been estimated yet, any proposal will drain IRSD’s regular operating fund.

“Our expenses don’t stop,” said Board Member Jim Fritz. “To do any of these projects is going to create added expense, which comes out of dollars that are useful. It’s not like the taxpayers have voted ‘no’ and gotten away with not having their tax dollars used by the school district.”

Sussex County’s population growth means that IRSD enrollment is growing faster than even the State had predicted. The IRSD could try redistricting and redraw the attendance lines for each school. But that will only ease the overcrowding, not eliminate it.

With just about every school approaching capacity, the IRSD’s only significant available space is in Frankford, at John M. Clayton Elementary School (originally a high school) and at the G.W. Carver Educational Center (housing the alternative school, the preschool and parent center).

JMC could become a ninth-grade academy for both district high schools. But that’s a lot of logistics to rearrange, including transportation and specialized teaching staff.

Carver could host a new K-12 STEM magnet school. Or the Southern Delaware School of the Arts could expand to include grades 9-12. The IRSD could continue using the soon-to-be-replaced Howard T. Ennis School building, which is owned by Delaware Technical Community College.

There were pros and cons noted for every idea, including transportation rerouting, necessary renovations and the actual impact to overcrowding at each grade level.


Dozens of portable classrooms


And then there’s the trailers.

This autumn, elementary and high school students could attend class in outdoor trailers, dropped onto the school grounds. That is considered a safety risk, separating students from the security-hardened schools. Additionally, portables will cost millions of dollars for five-year leases and necessary upgrades. (IRSD could also face another six-figure project if the Delaware Department of Transportation requires sidewalk installation at Sussex Central High School.)

Selbyville Middle School plans to slice its library into several classrooms, which Millsboro Middle School already did.

The district’s preferred solution was defeated twice in a public referendum earlier this year. With just one new building, the IRSD would have solved space problems at seven northern schools, by shifting schools and some attendance boundaries (in addition to new classrooms at Selbyville Middle School and Indian River High School).

“That is the one plan that would alleviate crowding in one shot, at all levels,” and set IRSD on a healthy track for future stability, Steele has repeatedly said.

“It kills me to spend the money for the portables. … That could have spent on something that’s more concrete, bricks-and-mortar, and have it paid off,” Steele said of the rented trailer classrooms, which the district will not own at the conclusion of the lease.

“From the 2017 referendum ’til today … operationally, we have done as well as anyone could do over the last two years,” Steele said. “Look at our reserves. … We have a good stability of income coming in. As long as buildings are being built, we have operational funds [local tax dollars] coming in. But we’re going to deplete them very quickly when we start doing these projects.”


Restarting the CN/referendum process?


The six options discussed on June 10 will help, but they won’t really solve anything, said Board Member Donald Hattier.

Only new construction will safely and comfortably accommodate the growth, he said, and Hattier’s already telling people that he expects the IRSD to try for a referendum again.

“Ultimately, we don’t have a choice. Whether that’s rejected again or not, that’s going to force the public to take a look at what we actually are going through,” he said.

“All the money that’s coming out to do these things is taking away directly from these kids’ education right now,” Hattier added. “We’re going to lose millions of dollars every year — that could go into actual education — just trying to provide basic infrastructure.”

The school board can’t avoid the referendum process just because they’re afraid it won’t pass, Fritz said.

But it’ll be tough. Statewide, more and more districts need capital improvements, and the State might provide less funding per project than it was willing to offer this year.

And the IRSD has other capital needs. The SDSA roof will likely need at least $600,000 in repairs, and replacing high-school running tracks could cost $300,000.

Meanwhile, the Town of Millsboro has permitted more than 1,200 homes for future development, and “They’re not all going to be retirees. … We were sick thinking Millsboro’s going to continue to grow immensely,” Steele said.

The Millville and Selbyville regions are similarly expecting thousands of new residents, all in the Selbyville Middle School attendance zone.

For the IRSD to even reach the referendum process again, they have to request Certificates of Necessity (CNs) from the State of Delaware this summer. The Department of Education has to acknowledge and be willing to invest in IRSD’s need (usually 60 percent of the project).

Once they issue a CN, the school district can take the question to public referendum to raise the local share (40 percent) of construction funds. Like a mortgage, the local tax increase would decrease over time as IRSD pays down the debt.


Public seeks IR’s need and risk


Referendum is a bold move when the public voted down the measure twice, even if the May referendum failed by a margin of less than 1 percent. So the administration has to “be courageous … to give these children what they need,” said Rose Watkins a district resident and member of IRSD’s Citizens Budget Oversight Committee.

“A referendum is not your problem. Educating the people to understand the benefit of an education is your problem,” said Watkins. When IRSD tried to sell the referendum, she said, “I don’t think you guys are focusing enough on the benefits. … Why aren’t we celebrating the successes of the education that these students have?”

She told the school board to seriously tweak their message for every audience. When everyday people are trying to balance a checkbook, they can’t necessarily comprehend half-million-dollar projects.

“Talk to them in the language they understand,” and get expert help for better planning.

“Why are we going to be wasting our money for something, and within the next five years, a school’s got to get built anyway?” asked resident Joyce Logan, age 76.

Logan railed against her fellow senior citizens who voted against the referendum because they don’t have children in the school system.

“I paid taxes all my life. The senior citizens have a knack for saying, ‘My kids are no longer in school.’ Well, I paid taxes for your kids when they were in school. Why can’t you help the next generation of kids that are out here? … The senior citizens, like everybody else, has got to pay some of their dues.”

She also demanded that developers and new property owners pay their fair share. Currently, Sussex County doesn’t require developers to pay impact fees for education, and many new residents come to Delaware to escape high tax rates elsewhere.

Board Member Rodney Layfield also suggested asking state legislators to consider eliminating requirements for paying construction workers the prevailing wage.

“We should actually try to put some pressure on the County Council about collecting money due this school district. I think in about a year it’ll be $4 million that we’re owed,” said Board President Charles Bireley of unpaid back taxes.

Board Member Leolga Wright said she wants a better flow of information between the public and the IRSD. She said she wants to educate people on educational budgets and enrollment rules, and for people to share their perceptions or ideas with the district.

“We could be laying the groundwork, so next time” they’ll understand the referendum, she said. “We’ve got to step up our game plan in order to get these people educated,” Wright said. “‘Here’s our dilemma: We’re overcrowded in every school we’ve got. We have two referendums that have failed…’”


By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter