What to build and do? Decision time looms for IRSD school board

The Sussex Central High School campus on Patriots Way between Georgetown and Millsboro is the site for a new school in a construction/renovation/addition option that has drawn support from Indian River School District school board members.

DAGSBORO – Decision time looms for Indian River School District’s board of education at its May 21 board meeting on the best, most feasible route to address over-crowding and enrollment growth.

Building a new high school (2,200-student capacity or possibly larger) on the current Sussex Central High School campus coupled with classroom additions at Selbyville Middle School and Indian River High School are the Option 2 package winning board member approval.

That option, among four publicly presented, carries an estimated $129.5 million overall price tag, with a $51.8 million local share in the 60/40 percent state/local funding ratio.

It is IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele’s preferred option.

“This option would allow us to utilize more of the buildings we currently have,” said Mr. Steele.

According to Mr. Steele, Option 2 would enable the district to move approximately 1,000 middle schoolers – 750 from Millsboro Middle School and 250 from Georgetown Middle School – into the existing Sussex Central High School building. Millsboro Middle School could then be renovated and converted for elementary-level purposes.

“That one major capital high school really enables us to take care of our northern issues,” said Mr. Steele.

“I, too, like Option 2,” said school board vice president Rodney Layfield. “And we talk about strategic planning. If we go with Option 2 we can anticipate our next need.”

The district has identified five space/capacity issues: elementary, middle and high school levels in the northern end; and Indian River High School and Selbyville Middle School in the southern end.

At a special public meeting April 11, Mr. Steele presented projections that indicate district-wide enrollment will approach 11,000 students next year, far ahead of the state’s previous projection, which was 2025.

Other option packages and total/local share costs, presented include:

  • Option1: New elementary and middle schools; Sussex Central High School renovations; Selbyville Middle School and Indian River High School additions (Total cost, $179.7 million; local share, $71.8 million);
  • Option 3: New elementary, middle and high schools; Selbyville Middle School and Indian River High School additions (Total cost, $145.3 million; local share, $58.1 million);
  • Option 4: New elementary school at Ingrams Pond; new middle school, two 9th grade academies; Selbyville Middle School additions (Total cost, $132.6 million; local share, $53 million).

In addition, Mr. Steele said board member Jim Hudson has offered another proposal, which would basically would add a new elementary school to the Option 2 package.

Finalized certificates of necessity must be submitted by Aug. 31. Pending CN approval from the state, which is anticipated in late October or early November, the district would hold a major capital referendum in the winter/spring of 2019.

Based on assessed values, the first-year tax increase on a property assessed at $20,000 would be about $15.60 for the Option 2 plan.

Eleven of the district’s 16 schools are currently near, at or above 90-percent capacity with continued growth anticipated – particularly in the district’s heavy Hispanic population in the Georgetown/Millsboro area.

Sussex Central High School, built to1,500-student capacity, has been well over capacity for several years. If used as a middle school, the SCHS building capacity would be 1,800.

“I do not believe putting 1,800 middle schoolers there is the wise thing to do. But I think you could easily go up to 1,000 and have plenty of space to handle that many students,” said Mr. Steele. “That in itself opens Millsboro Middle School up to be renovated to accommodate elementary students.”

The Millsboro Middle School building, with an 800-student middle school capacity, would have a 934-student capacity as an elementary school. Renovations in the transition to elementary would encompass restroom facilities, sinks and possibly cafeteria serving lines.

School board president Charles Bireley asked if the state would allow renovations as part of a certificate of necessity submission in a major capital referendum.

Mr. Steele believes it will. He said he would check with the Department of Education.

“Doing this in lieu of building a new school, I would venture to say that what we are trying to do is utilize a building we already have … at a cost that is greatly less than what a new building is,” said Mr. Steele. “I think if it’s a renovation to add more capacity the state would do that.”

Renovations in general at the state level are not being approved unless they are being used to add capacity, Mr. Steele said.

IRSD Director of Business Jan Steele reminded the board that renovations totaling $750,000 or less fall under minor cap, not major capital.

In the district’s southern end, additions at the IRHS and Selbyville Middle School could be up to six or eight classrooms.

“Again, I want to make sure that there are enough classrooms added to Selbyville Middle,” said IRSD board member James Fritz. “I know we are really cramped for space there. I don’t want to cut ourselves short on adding on there or here at Indian River High School,”

Transportation challenges, already an issue in the sprawling IRSD, would be further magnified in terms of the number of buses it would require.

In this major capital process, the district will need to address potential changes to attendance school lines and boundaries.

It also offers an opportunity to focus on programming ideas. Relocating central office currently based in Selbyville and in turn expanding Southern Delaware School of the Arts is one idea. Creating another type of magnet school is another possibility, Mr. Steele said.

“I think that’s a wise thing we can do, to utilize the space that we currently have. It also gives us options we haven’t talked about,” said Mr. Steele.

Modular classroom units are extremely expensive Mr. Steele said, noting lease on a portable classroom for five years is $90,000.

Whatever route the board chooses to take, Mr. Steele emphasized it must begin with a high school. “We have to start with the high school. That has got to be the first decision,” he said. “Depending on your high school decision everything else is going to trickle down. That really is the driving force.”

Board member Gerald Peden likes Option 2. Given enrollment of SCHS that is projected to surpass 2,000 in 2024, Mr. Peden suggested the board and district might consider building a 2,400-student high school rather than a 2,200-student school.

The 2,400-student high school would add 2.5 cents more per assessed value to the property owners who would “pay a little bit more now,” Mr. Peden said. But he said it would cost more “five, six or seven years from now with inflation to add onto that school with these numbers increasing as they are. It would cost more now but I think in the long run if we had to make additions in the future those additions would cost a lot more.”

“Are we allowed to do that?” asked Mr. Layfield.

“That is the question: How much bigger will the state allow you to build?” said Mr. Steele.

“We will be able to get an answer to that question by the time we meet (May 21)?” Mr. Layfield asked.

“We should. We can ask,” said Mr. Steele.

Wednesday’s special meeting at Indian River High School drew only a handful of members of the public and was attended by six of 10 school board members. Two board members arrived well into the meeting, which initially began in committee-discussion format due to lack of a six-member quorum at the start.

“I am in favor of Option 2, but I know this board specifically has had problems with the entire board voting ‘yes’ for a referendum because some people feel they don’t have participation or don’t understand,” Mr. Layfield said. “We have six people (board members) here tonight. We’re only going to cause that problem again if we vote for Option 2. I like Option 2 and I am prepared to move forward with it. But I think you bring a good question; if we can find out if we can build to a 2,400 capacity rather than 2,200.  I think it would be great for all 10 board members to vote ‘yes’ and take it to the public. That is the way to take this thing. If we do it with four people absent … one of them might not like it.”

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

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