IRSD: Enrollment growth spurs serious discussion about short-term, long-term needs

SELBYVILLE – It’s time to walk the talk.

That’s the serious drift amid the ranks of the Indian River School District board of education as the district gears to address student enrollment growth and over-capacity issues that translate to a desperate need for more classroom space.

Renovation, expansion, new school construction – a third high school is being tossed about – and short-term/long-term solutions were discussed and debated at the board’s Jan. 22 meeting.

Discussion followed updated enrollment projections by IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele from 2018 through 2024.

“We’re going to hit 11,000 about 2019,” said Mr. Steele, noting that figure could conceivably be reached in 2018. “If you take a look starting in 2019 all the way through 2024, particularly at the secondary level schools you’re going to notice a pretty substantial increase.”

Mr. Steele emphasized that for the secondary schools he did not factor growth, in terms of students coming in from the outside. “I wanted to get a very clear number – a minimum of where we feel we would be,” he said.

Sussex Central High School, which opened its doors in 2004 at 1,500-student capacity, has been over capacity for several years. SCHS enrollment, as of Mr. Steele’s presentation, was 1,631 – which translates to 109-percent maximum capacity.

East Millsboro Elementary (102 percent) and Selbyville Middle School (101 percent) are currently over capacity. Six other schools were over 90 percent, led by Long Neck Elementary (99 percent).

Using the district’s 90-percent capacity number, 11 of district’s 16 schools are over 90 percent and have a “closed” school choice status.

“These numbers are going to require us to do a couple things,” said Mr. Steele. “We are going to have to take a look at a permanent solution. And I do believe in some cases you’re going to have to take a look at solutions that we can house kids quickly if we need to until we can come with a plan on what we need to do to have the building capacities to take care of these numbers.”

As a precaution, Mr. Steele said he has directed IRSD Director of Business Jan Steele to look into costs of portable units “in case we get hung up, and don’t have time.”

He added that the district should examine the possibility of moving some school attendance areas “so we can equal out, particularly at the elementary levels.”

“I have worked these numbers through about three different times just to make sure we’re exactly where we need to be,” said Mr. Steele. “I think these numbers are as accurate as I am going to get up through the next seven years. I thought that would be a good model to look at and start the discussion on what we need to do. That said, we are going to obviously need to look at new buildings or renovations or additions.”

“I think the important thing to remember for our friends in the press is that we were told by the state we were going to have 10,000 students in 2020,” said IRSD board member Dr. Donald Hattier. “I would suggest we use Mr. Steele’s numbers. They are a whole lot more accurate.”

School board vice president Rodney Layfield believes the board and district need to address this immediately. Among his main concerns: Sussex Central High School enrollment.

“We have not moved forward with correcting that situation. It’s the white elephant in the room. Three years we’ve been over capacity for the high school, we continue to do nothing but talk and we’re not fixing it. As a board we’re not addressing that,” said Mr. Layfield. “I know it is multi-faceted with different schools. Let’s talk numbers.”

Mr. Layfield’s suggestion is for the board to take a positive step and get everybody on board – now.

“We’ve got to make a bid to the public for them to support the referendum,” said Mr. Layfield. “If we broke ground in 2018 with a shovel I don’t think the school would be done until 2020 … 2021. We have schools that are over capacity right now and if we do nothing then our middle schools are still going to bust.”

Dr. Hattier said the school board has not been dragging its feet. He says its hands have been tied.

“If I am not mistaken we spent the better part of about two years trying to figure out what we were going to do. Part of the reason that we did not move forward had to do with the state essentially telling us they weren’t going to be giving us any more bond money,” said Dr. Hattier. “I would like the record to reflect that we have made a serious effort over the last couple years to resolve this. When the state tells you, ‘We’re not giving you money to do it,’ at some point it does not become our problem, it becomes theirs.”

More than a year ago, the school district’s Futures Committee examined workable solutions to address enrollment growth and overcrowding. The committee developed a series of option plan packages that included combinations of expansion, new schools and relocation of some facilities.

In the spring of2016, the board and district launched a certificate of necessity process that encompassed construction of two new schools, classroom-wing expansion and other projects.

Certificate of necessity approval was granted for some but not all the district’s requests, Mr. Steele said.

“We weren’t going to get any money so what’s the point of going to referendum if they (the state) are not going to match their part of it?” said Dr. Hattier. “In a couple years from now, by 2022 if this stuff keeps up we’ll be using every piece of closet space that we have to stick kids into.”

The district also sought the state’s blessing for a new Howard T. Ennis facility, which serves students with significant disabilities in the Indian River School District and other districts.

The Ennis School, which will be 100-percent state-funded, has been approved by the state. Land at the state-owned Stockley Center property on Patriots Way across from the SCHS campus is identified as the preferable Ennis School site.

However, that project will not commence as originally hoped. Mr. Steele said the district has been informed there is no bond bill funding available at the moment.

Indian River School District board of education members, from left, Dr. Donald Hattier, Gerald Peden and Jim Hudson listen to a presentation.

“We’re about a year behind,” said Mr. Steele, noting that there will be no state bond bill money this January to jump-start the project as had been anticipated. “We had anticipated a little bit of bond money released in January, hoping to jump-start on the Ennis project. So, we’re going to be at least a year behind.”

“I think we need to be grateful we got Howard T. Ennis, but it does still put us a good year, possibly two behind by the time everything happens,” Dr. Hattier said. “It puts us behind the gun; it really does.”

Expanding a school such as Sussex Central High School to increase student capacity to 2,000 does not sit well with some board members.

“To me, you start getting a school that big, you start reducing the opportunities for the kids. You can still only have one football team. You still only have one basketball team. Your bands are a bit more flexible. Your choruses are a bit more flexible. But some of the others you actually reduce opportunities for kids if the building is too big,” said Dr. Hattier. “I could support a third high school.”

“I just wonder, in Sussex County: How big is too big?” said Mr. Steele.

“Are we to the point of discussing three high schools?” Mr. Layfield asked.

“I would venture to say you’d get a tremendous amount of support if you went to a third high school because of what Dr. Hattier is saying about opportunities for kids to be involved,” said board member Jim Hudson.

Another possibility would be to relocate the district’s central office, currently based at the Indian River Education Complex on Hoosier Street in Selbyville in the southern-most end of the district, to a large school or expanded building.

“I don’t like to use the central office location as a point of focus, but we are in the worst place we could be,” said Mr. Steele. “We need to be in the center of the district.”

Board member Leolga Wright said the district should identify district property that could accommodate new construction or expansion. “That needs to be included in our game-plan,” she said.

Mr. Steele said several schools – like Millsboro Middle School and East Millsboro Elementary – are basically landlocked. “And they are structurally not equipped to go up,” Mr. Steele said.

School campuses with the most acreage: SCHS between Georgetown and Millsboro and Indian River High School in Dagsboro. Another option is district property at Ingram’s Pond in Millsboro.

Seeds for serious discussion about increasing enrollment that could culminate in a capital referendum were planted by Mr. Steele and Mr. Bireley at the board’s December meeting prior to holiday break.

Mr. Bireley’s priority preference is a new high school, to address growing pains at Sussex Central and rapid growth in the northern portion of the district.

“I would think if we are going to do something or try to do something about it, that we would attack the biggest problem that we have right now,” said Mr. Bireley in December. “And the problem is at Sussex Central. There is no doubt about it as far as the number of students that they have.”

Mr. Steele recommended that board president Bireley reestablish a committee, so the district can “get together and start working on this to present something to the public.”

“We need to develop a plan that will work for us and then we can start the process if we decide to go in the direction of CNs,” Mr. Steele said.

In early March of 2017, IRSD voters in a record-breaking turnout approved o the district’s follow-up $7.35 million current expense referendum pitch supporting enrollment growth, school safety and student services.

That referendum passed by 1,701 votes – 7,095 to 5,394 margin. It was the largest turnout by far in Indian River School District history, shattering the previous high of 8,437 votes in a May 2000 major capital improvement referendum for two new high schools – Sussex Central and Indian River – as well as other renovation projects within the district.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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