Redistricting an option if IRSD referendum fails

Vote planned for February 2020

For a school district with two high schools, students and graduates can sometimes be fiercely proud of having attended either the northern or southern schools and to see their children do the same. But it’s not realistic that Sussex Central High School should be at 120 percent enrollment capacity while Indian River High School sits more comfortably at 95 percent.

As SCHS hits a breaking point, the school district will have to consider all options for a safe and confortable learning experience. Indian River School District is one of the few places that was approved — for a second year— to access state money for a new, larger SCHS building, due to overcrowding. 

This week, the IRSD Board of Education accepted the Department of Elections’ offer for a public referendum to be held Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 (weather date of Feb. 20). Officially, public referendum gives the school district permission to borrow funds. Later, it’s up to the school board to repay those funds, typically by the raising of local property taxes.

The state of Delaware would pay up to 60 percent of construction costs.

Superintendent Mark Steele said now is the perfect time and possibly IRSD’s last chance to make this work. With just one new building, they could actually shift students into larger buildings and open an additional elementary school to handle growth around Millsboro and also alleviate congestion in the Long Neck and Georgetown Schools.

The public twice voted down this plan in 2019. (Although the vote had also included additional classrooms at Selbyville Middle School and Indian River High School, the Department of Education did not include those additions in the 2020 plan).

“We have three options available to the public,” Steele told the school board on Nov. 25. “One, we need to pass the referendum. That will solve a lot of problems in this district, I think for the next eight to 10 years. Two, increase the number of portables classrooms that we have in the district” which means IRSD will need a current expense referendum in two or three years. “Three, we’re going to have to look at school boundaries. We’re going to have to do some maneuvering to bring some students from the northern areas to the south.”

As it is, Indian River School District is already paying beaucoup dollars for portable classrooms at North Georgetown Elementary School and Sussex Central. For IR officials, that’s money down the drain, with little state funding.

“It’s a whole lot easier in my mind to just pass the referendum,” Steele said. “We need them to understand the ramifications if this doesn’t pass.

“I’m gonna be honest: We can’t put a dent in Sussex Central,” he added. “I anticipate there will be [nearly] 1,950 students next year, just based on simple progression” of grade 8 to grade 9.

He also hopes Sussex County Council will consider charging impact fees to the developers that build houses which bring people here. Caesar Rodney School District recently accessed Kent County impact fees to complete another project. 

Sussex County is one of the fastest growing areas in the region. Millsboro Town Hall touts its high number of “residential building permits issued — a leading indicator of population growth,” as evidenced by big box stores that only arrive when they know there is a customer base. The town tries to be “welcoming to professionals and families alike. There is no sales tax. Property taxes and crime rates are low. The Indian River School District, which serves Millsboro, enjoys a solid reputation and, like the Town, is growing rapidly.”

“We gained appropriately 100 students in a little over seven weeks,” Steele said this month. “So we are continually growing, and that’s a trend I don’t see slowing down at all.

“Since Sept. 30, in the last two months, our enrollment has grown to 11,120 students,” Steele said.

However, IRSD’s state funding this year will only be based on the official Sept. 30 count of 11,028 students. The district will manage resources for an additional four classroom’s worth of students on their own.

Meanwhile, the State approved building designs have been approved for Howard T. Ennis School. Construction could begin September of 2020, with a completion date of April 2022, depending on state permits and other factors.

It will be 100 percent state-funded because it is a county-wide school managed by IRSD. The Georgetown school would move south, across from Sussex Central High School on Patriots Way in north Millsboro.

This winter, the public can expect to see a variety of information. There will be public meetings, visits to local civic organizations, social media chats and videos, plus regular news coverage on the issue.

The next regular monthly meeting of IRSD Board of Education will be Monday, Dec. 16, at 7 p.m. at Sussex Central High School.


By Laura Walter
Staff Reporter