IRSD again given preliminary approval to build new school

Government funding is tight, which means the Delaware Department of Education is only willing to sponsor the most pressing of construction projects.

For the second consecutive year, the DOE acknowledged Indian River School District’s rapid growth and approved IRSD to try building a new high school on land the district already owns.

“With all the new building and [housing] approvals that are going through the county, we are going to see [enrollment] increases for a long time … I don’t see any other way than moving forward with this referendum,” said Superintendent Mark Steele.

The IRSD Board of Education unanimously agreed to work toward a public referendum in February of 2020. 


State focused on growth areas


Although IRSD was again authorized to pursue construction of a new Sussex Central High School (currently at 123 percent of intended capacity), they were rejected this time for classroom additions at Indian River High School (95 percent capacity) and Selbyville Middle School (109 percent capacity).

IRSD wasn’t the only district hoping for state funding. Each autumn, school districts across the state submit their capital improvement requests to the DOE. Everyone is hoping to receive a Certificate of Necessity (CN), in which the DOE recognizes the need for construction funding. It authorizes the state treasurer to pay the state share (pending the state budget and bond bill) and authorizes district to take the matter to referendum.

“Top priorities for district projects were determined based on district growth,” stated DOE spokesperson Alison May.

DOE’s other CNs included the “acutely-needed” roof and HVAC replacements at other Delaware schools. Only a few new schools were approved. Most did not receive everything they requested, and four received nothing. DOE rejected Sussex Technical School request to replace its aging school building.

The Delaware General Assembly must also consider funding requests for government-owned buildings in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, not just schools.


Growth moves faster than anticipated


Indian River School District has enrolled 11,028 students as of the annual statewide “unit count” on Sept. 30. So even after the natural graduation of seniors and addition of kindergarteners, 331 additional students are enrolled, compared to this time last year.

“Over the next three years, with the progression models, we’re going to increase 500, 600 students … That’s going to indicate to you that we’re going to see another substantial growth next year, about 260 kids, followed by two years of kids about 160 each year,” said Steele.

“That’s not counting any growth to our area. That is simply moving the kids through who are currently in our schools,” Steele added.

Sussex Central has been above capacity for years. This week, they were at 123 percent capacity, already surpassing last spring’s expectation.

“We have to move forward, and we have to do everything we can to pass this referendum … we need to do everything we can to get out in the community,” Steele said.

The school board weren’t entirely sure that DOE would approve the CNs for the second consecutive year.

When the issue was presented in official referendum, the public twice proposal voted down the proposal (which would have allowed IRSD to issue bonds and borrow money for their share of construction costs).

“The state obviously feels the same way to approve this again, after the last time,” said Jim Fritz, board member.

“They recognize the growth that we’ve had … it’s very evident that we have the students, we have to have the space,” Steele said. “We have to pass this referendum this year, or there’s a very good possibility that we won’t have a CN on the table [next year].”

According to the state construction formula, a new 2,200-student building is worth $146.1 million (slightly more than last year). The state would pay the majority of construction fees: 60 percent, or $87.6 million.

IRSD would then have to borrow $58.4 million to pay the remainder, which the public must vote to approve. After that, it’s up to the school board to adjust the tax rate to repay that “mortgage.”

IR actually saves money because they already own the land.


Student in trailers for next few years


District officials support this proposal as the most cost-effective way to reduce overcrowding at multiple schools. By shifting school attendance zones, another six schools would benefit from one new building: Sussex Central would move into the new building; Millsboro Middle School would move into the former high school building; and a new elementary school would open in the former middle school building.

“We’re getting one school that enables us to have much more room in the middle schools and an extra elementary school. So the school in the north end of the district will alleviate our crowding problems for a little while,” Steele said.

Having reached a breaking point in several places, IRSD has installed six outdoor trailers to create 10 modular classrooms at Sussex Central; installed one trailer for two classrooms at North Georgetown Elementary School; and shrunk libraries and common space at other schools in order to provide basic educational space.

For IR officials, that feels like wasted money. They are leasing the trailers, must provide adequate safety, electric, internet and fire suppression services, with little state funding.

Meanwhile, Howard T. Ennis School was also approved for a CN update. That is 100 percent state-funded because it is a county-wide school managed by IRSD. Building designs have been available for the public to see at several past board meetings, and the school board approved the design this month.


In other IRSD news:

• There will be an in-depth conversation about the school choice policy at the Nov. 18 Policy Committee meeting at 4 p.m. at Indian River Education Complex in Selbyville. All committee meetings are open to the public. Administrators hope to prepare a solid plan this winter on how to approve requests in February for the 2020-21 school year.

• In Millsboro, the massive Plantations Lake housing development requested (and was granted) an easement at the IRSD Ingram Pond site. Lencraft LLC will pay IRSD a one-time fee of $25,000 to essentially create a swale in front of district property. Later, the school board will discuss how to earmark that income, although there was some initial support to direct that money toward the Ingram Pond outdoor education center’s budget.

• District staff were named the Title IX Coordinator (Jay Owens), the 504 Coordinator (P. Renee Jerns) and ADA Coordinator (Joseph Booth.

• The Indian River High School Boys Volleyball team was officially added to the school’s athletics program. So after two years of play, they will get district funding ($2,400 this year) for transportation, referees and coaches.

• Pop Warner has offered to donate some middle-school size cheerleading uniforms, which the district will accept.

The next regular monthly meeting of IRSD Board of Education will be Monday, Nov. 25, at 7 p.m. at Indian River High School.


By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter