Public offers ideas to address IRSD’s growing pains

GEORGETOWN – Space, the final frontier.

Only this isn’t Star Trek and the voyage of the Starship Enterprise.

IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele goes over some suggestions offered at the special April 11 meeting.

It’s about over-capacity issues, projected growth and growing pains in the Indian River School District.

Community input the IRSD district and board of education want and that’s what they got Wednesday night in a special public meeting to address workable solutions and ways to relieve overcrowding in district schools.

“The board wanted to hear options from the public. Maybe there is ideas we haven’t thought of, that you can give us, and we can take a look at,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele. “So, were starting this meeting tonight with no preconceived notions of exactly what we are going to do.”

With 11 of the district’s 16 schools currently near, at or above 90-percent capacity and continued growth anticipated – particularly in the northern Georgetown/Millsboro area – the district is laying the foundation for plans and strategies that will lead to a Certificate of Necessity submission, and with state approval culminate in a major capital referendum.

Mr. Steele presented enrollments, updated projections and in general the district’s most pressing needs.

“We’re going to have to have some type of additional capacity in the elementary, middle and high school levels in the north. We’re also going to have to have some type of additional capacity at the middle and high school in the south,” said Mr. Steele. “If I said I didn’t have ideas I’d be lying to you. I’ve got ideas. I always have ideas. That’s my job as superintendent to always be thinking ahead. However, I’ve never claimed to have the best and the only. I am always looking for ways to do things without raising that tax dollar to a high level. We need to review options. Tonight, we are step one. We’re trying to gather options. We’re trying to gather ideas. Then the board is going to have to hunker down and decide what is the best move for us to make.”

“Is it more cost effective to build new or is it more cost effective to renovate?” said Mr. Steele.

From the audience – gauged a smaller turnout than had been anticipated, Mr. Steele said – came several dozen ideas, suggestions and concerns.

Some making that list:

  • Utilize district-owned property at Ingrams Pond;
  • Build up not out;
  • Seek supplementary revenue through builder impact fees that would increase tax revenue;
  • Pursue large-scale grant funding from the likes of the Gates Foundation, perhaps earmarked for specialized areas of education;
  • Have three separate high schools – Sussex Central, Indian River and a new one potentially in the Georgetown area.
  • Build ninth-grade academies, possibly through wing additions at both high schools;
  • Transform the Southern Delaware School of the Arts into a K-12 school focusing primarily on the arts;
  • Share success stories of the district;
  • Create pathways that appeal to people moving into the area;
  • Continue to emphasize school safety.
  • Seek public/private partnership where, for example, a big employer would agree to build a school for use by the district;
  • Keep and utilize the Howard T. Ennis School after it is vacated following the construction of the new Ennis complex;
  • Recognize that population growth does increase the tax base, but in the north end where there is an abundance of immigration, some of it is not legal, which decreases the tax base;
  • Consider modernization factors and costs in any renovation/expansion project;
  • Consider a two-tiered system, with morning/afternoon and afternoon/evening schedules;
  • Explore countywide consolidation.

“It’s a great start for us to take a look at these ideas and concepts and now start to develop some of them into what is absolutely going to work best for us,” said Mr. Steele.

Mr. Steele’s enrollment projections, compiled utilizing three methods, differ vastly from previous state projections.

“In 2025, seven years from now, they (state) projected around 10,957,” said Mr. Steele. “In fact, next year the projection for the Indian River School District is 10,983. That’s a conservative estimate. So, we realistically are starting out behind the 8-ball.”

The most noticeable building issue is Sussex Central High School, which opened in 2004 at a 1,500-student capacity. The high school serving students in the Georgetown/Millsboro area has been over-capacity for several years. Currently at 1,663 (111 percent capacity) SCHS’s projected enrollment in 2024 is 2,047.

Two years ago, the district received state Certificate of Necessity approval for four of six requests: a new 720-student elementary school, a new 700-student middle school, renovation of Sussex Central High School and a new Howard T. Ennis School, which provides special education services for pupils with significant disabilities within the IRSD and sending districts.

New elementary and middle school construction and SCHS renovation was projected to cost district taxpayers $69 million, part of a $172 million total under the 60/40 state/local funding ratio. But amid other issues, including a critical state audit and more pressing needs, this proposal never reached the major capital referendum stage. However, there was a $7.35 million current expense referendum, which passed overwhelmingly on the second try in March of 2017 following a narrow defeat in November 2016.

Preliminary plans are in the works for the new Ennis School, to be built across from the Sussex Central High School campus. Because the Ennis School is 100-percent state funded, it requires no referendum passage.

IRSD school board member Gerald Peden, right, shares ideas at the special meeting. Board members Derek Cathell, front, and Rodney Layfield look on.

“This decision we are going to make could potentially cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” said IRSD board member Gerald Peden. “We can’t afford to make a costly mistake. I’ve known Mark for years. He is a math guru. The numbers he has shown are accurate. He is right on. It is not going to stop.”

Mr. Peden said the district should be aware that it could possibly lose more students who reside in the district to Sussex Tech High School, should Tech’s 1,250-student moratorium be raised by the state. Mr. Peden also noted that private schools such as Sussex Academy and Delmarva Christian High School may now be more affordable to families in the economic rebound.

Additionally, Mr. Peden suggested moving boundary lines closer to Millsboro and Long Neck, and funnel those students to Georgetown schools and  then utilize the Ennis School to help spread out capacity.

Boundaries

In any case, school boundary zones must be addressed, Mr. Steele said. And it’s not necessarily a north/south issue.

“I think one of the things regardless of what has to happen is we’re going to have to take a look at school boundary areas – no matter what we do,” said Mr. Steele. “In some cases, depending on what we do, we may be able to minimize what we build or renovate and be able to do some moving around and go that way.”

Old Ennis facility

What will happen to the current Ennis School facility on the west side of Georgetown once the new facility opens, presumably in several years?

The Ennis school is nearly 50 years old and somewhat antiquated. Some in the audience expressed hope it can be part of the solution equation to help address district over-capacity issues. Mr. Steele isn’t sure.

“The Ennis building could help us. The only thing; we don’t own that building. That property is Del Tech’s,” said Mr. Steele. “It is certainly an option we can look at.”

Available land/room to expand

While landlocked at most of its school campuses, the district owns some land that could be utilize for new construction and/or renovation. There is ample acreage at the two high school campuses, as well as Ingrams Pond.

There is some room to expand at Southern Delaware School of the Arts, while Long Neck Elementary and Selbyville Middle School could undergo some minor expansion, according to Mr. Steele’s expansion review information.

Mr. Steele cautioned that Ingrams Pond, accessible by several narrow rural roads could pose regulatory issues such as with DelDOT.  “There is a lot that goes into this process in what we deal with when we deal with regulatory agencies; that I learned over the past,” he said.

Immediate need

Mr. Steele said the district has reached the point where portable classrooms may be the temporary solution. He said has spoken with Jan Steele, the district’s director of business to explore options.

“Folks, we are now almost at that midnight hour,” said Mr. Steele. “We simply cannot in some of our situations that we currently have, keep that many kids in a building. Take Sussex Central, I’m sure we’ll have fire marshal issues. We have the CBOC – Community Budget Oversight Committee – and we’ve had them working on this as well, to come up with ideas on what we can do.”

Countywide consolidation

In response to a question from the audience, Mr. Steele said the state has been looking into consolidation. However, he noted that with that teacher salaries would have to be leveled off, of unified at the higher pay scale, thus there would be an increase in current expense. While economies could be made in some areas, those gains would likely be offset, he said.

“Sometimes big isn’t always the best way to go,” said Mr. Steele.

What’s next?

Here is the projected timetable:

  • Review major capital options;
  • Complete Certificates of Necessity (CNs) and submit to the state by Aug. 31, 2018;
  • Plan and execute a major capital referendum for approval of CNs in the winter/spring of 2019;
  • Design and begin construction and/or renovations in summer of 2019.

Mr. Steele emphasized the district will continue to seek additional public input throughout this process.

“We’ve got a pretty large task ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of decisions to make. And those decisions always aren’t going to be the easiest decisions, but they are decisions that I think we are going to have to make to determine what is best for the kids in our district,” said Mr. Steele, who made note the state’s financial challenges last year. “A lot of that depends, too, not only on local but on the state side of where we are and how they’re going to fund things.”

“One thing that we can’t forget regardless of cost of buildings, regardless of how much space it takes, regardless of how many kids we have in our district, the bottom line is we are here for kids. We provide education. We move forward,” said Mr. Steele. “We try to make our kids as successful as possible.”

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

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