Voters approved latest school referendum by 3,000 votes
After three attempts over two years, the residents of Indian River School District finally passed a major capital referendum on Feb. 13.
The Delaware Department of Elections has confirmed the official tally as 7,556 to 4,537 — a difference of 3,019 votes.
Now, with a temporary increase in property taxes and $88 million in state funding, the district will build a new Sussex Central High School, which (by shuffling some of the lower grades) will ultimately improve capacity issues at about six schools for the long term.
The six poll locations were packed all day on Feb. 13 as voters cast ballots resulting in a 62-38 percent margin, a difference of 25 percentage points.
For possibly the first time, the capital-expense referendum won on every single machine at every voting location.
“I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to our public for supporting this important initiative,” Superintendent Mark Steele said. “We are grateful that IRSD residents recognized the need for additional classroom space and approved our plan to solve overcrowding problems with the construction of only one new school.
“We sometimes argue in this district, and fuss and feud, but when it comes down to what we’ve got to get done, we’ve always seem to come through,” Steele said. “I want to thank all of the community members, regardless of how you voted, because 12,000 people means that 12,000 people were listening and getting information and taking the time to learn a little bit more about our school district.”
Turnout near record-breaking
Public turnout was impressive on a rainy, yet mild Thursday, coming just a few hundred votes shy of the record vote tally from three years ago. At the Department of Elections’ Sussex County office, they’re just happy to see people participate in the democratic process.
“What I liked about it — it was a big turnout. … You certainly don’t want 100 folks to show up and decide for everyone else,” said Kenneth L. McDowell, county elections director. “I would be upset if it was a low turnout. It takes a lot to put these on, a lot of planning and direction.”
Around 5 p.m. in Georgetown, the line of those waiting to vote reached 100 people, but the ID scanner speeded things up.
McDowell offered some opinions on why so many people came out to vote: “Obviously, the pocketbook issue. And it’s an easy ballot, ‘yes or no.’ I think they have great interest in their children and schools, I would guess,” McDowell said, in addition to the public outreach and media attention.
He estimated that about 50,000 residents were eligible to vote.
Delaware’s new voting machines were introduced in 2019. McDowell said there were zero official complaints from the referendum, although the team had not been debriefed yet on the machines themselves. They’ve been “up to our eyeballs” in voter certifications, he said, and yes — they do check every voter for eligibility. And, now, by scanning IDs at check-in, the elections staff will immediately know if that person has voted in another location. (McDowell said there have never been any instances of such fraud in Sussex school elections.)
“It was a splendid day. No problems at all. We had a lot of mothers and fathers with their children. It’s a good old family day,” McDowell added.
For the next few years
The new high school should take about four years to build, and all schools impacted by the plan will shift at once. In the meantime, Northern families should still expect changes. Overcrowding is happening now, and even more portable trailers will be installed as modular classrooms during the next few years. Eventually, there will be redistricting around their schools, but at least they won’t be pushed into the southern schools.
“The Golden Knights in the north will stay the Golden Knights,” Steele said. “We just have an awful lot of planning right now. Now we know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Since the district worked to earn every “yes” vote, the relief was palpable among the administrators. Steele thanked the staff, volunteers and community groups who have worked on an almost daily basis to inform the community.
“This is going to solve a huge problem in the district for a long time,” Steele said.
Financially, the IRSD might not need another referendum to increase taxes for about eight years, Steele estimated. Thursday’s vote has set IRSD on an ideal trajectory, he said. Like a mortgage, the taxes from the major capital referendum will eventually decrease back to zero. And the IRSD is growing a $12.5-million reserve fund, so they shouldn’t need to increase current-expense taxes for a long time.
In fact, that rainy-day fund could possibly pay IRSD’s 40-percent share of future additions to other schools, such as Selbyville Middle School.
“My hope is, just because it’s referendum time, don’t stop watching what we do. Continue to watch us, continue to challenge us, just make sure we give them the best we can possibly give,” Steele said. “The schools and the fire departments are the hubs of the communities, and we want people to know we feel the same way. We want people to understand we’re here to take the kids of today to make future communities strong.”
The tax rate
Now that the referendum has passed, the new tax rate will be implemented this autumn.
The vote allows the school district to issue $58.4 million worth of bonds, which will be repaid through a temporary increase in property taxes. That will pay the IRSD’s local share (40 percent) of construction costs. The current IRSD school tax is $3.067 per $100 of assessed property value. (Sussex County property values have not been reassessed in decades, so assessed values are much lower than actual real estate values.)
The tax rate will increase by a few cents for three years and then immediately drop again because the IRSD is currently paying off debt faster than it will be borrowing.
At its height, the property tax rate might increase by 28 cents per $100 (and possibly less, if bond rates stay low). So, at most, for one year, the monthly impact for the owner of the average district property could be $5.31 per month, based on the average property assessment of $22,751. Then, after the 2023 fiscal year, the debt service fees will decrease every year until the construction bonds are retired.
The IRSD already owns all the land needed to build the new high school, and the existing schools will only need minor cosmetic changes to allow for the other students to be moved into them.
Sometimes school districts request extra money from local taxpayers for special features, but for this referendum, the IRSD just stuck to the minimum required by the Delaware Department of Education.
“I don’t like to spend a lot of money. I like to have that big rainy-day reserve,” said Steele. “We’re not looking for the Taj Mahal. We’re looking for a school: solid walls, wide hallways, ample space for the common areas and easily assessable if we need to add on. … We’ll be looking at a good, solid-structured school.
Making progress at Ennis
Meanwhile, plans for a new Howard T. Ennis School are progressing steadily. Coincidently, on referendum night, the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission held a public hearing for zoning of the new Ennis site. (That decision will be made at a future meeting.)
That school will be 100-percent state-funded, because it serves about 150 children with high-intensity special needs across all of Sussex County, although it’s managed by the IRSD. The old Georgetown school is significantly outdated. Depending on permits, the groundbreaking for a modern Ennis facility could occur in September, across the street from SCHS.
Saving money on real estate, Ennis will be built on an unused 32.4-acre parcel of land that the Department of Health & Social Services already owned for the Stockley Center. The land was transferred to the IRSD.
When and if the older Ennis site ceases to be a special-needs school, it will revert to the original owner, Delaware Technical Community College.
By Laura Walter
Editor's Note: This article was updated to reflect the official vote tally, certified by the Department of Elections.