Indian River School District: Ads contained ‘inaccuracies’ and ‘misleading’ information

Editor’s note: The following rebuttal from Indian River School District Superintendent Dr. Susan Bunting, IRSD board of education president Charles Bireley and IRSD board of education vice president Rodney Layfield is in response to advertisements that ran in the Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 editions of the Sussex County Post.

In recent weeks, the Sussex County Post has published two “public service” advertisements paid for by a local taxpayer who is accusing the Indian River School District of financial mismanagement.

These advertisements contained numerous inaccuracies.

The publisher of the ads, Mr. C.H. Elder, is relying on misinformation in an attempt to convince voters not to support the current expense referendum on November 22. We would like the public to have accurate information when deciding whether to support this initiative. Therefore, we are offering the following rebuttal to these misleading ads.

Mr. Elder criticizes the district for not providing an explanation or comment on the recent issues involving former Chief Financial Officer Patrick Miller, who was placed on administrative leave in April and retired from the district in June.

The district has not offered additional public information regarding this issue because it is prohibited by law from doing so. State laws protecting the privacy rights of employees prevent the district from commenting on personnel issues. (Delaware Code Title 29, Chapter 100 – FOIA) Mr. Elder also mentions legal issues regarding Mr. Miller’s previous employment in the Brandywine School District. It should be noted that Mr. Miller was hired by the Indian River School District in September 1998, approximately six weeks before the state auditor’s office began its investigation of Brandywine’s finances. The final auditor’s report was not issued until September 2000 and Mr. Miller’s criminal case was not adjudicated until November 2000, more than two years after he was hired by IRSD.

Furthermore, the ad refers to Mr. Miller as “Superintendent Bunting’s CFO” when, in fact, all district employees, including the superintendent, are hired by the Board of Education, which is the school district’s governing body. Mr. Miller was hired in 1998 under a previous superintendent, administration and Board of Education. He remained on our administrative staff after Dr. Bunting assumed the superintendent’s post in 2006.

Mr. Elder’s ad also alleges a “cover up” of perceived financial mismanagement by the district.

The public should know that the district requested the audit that is currently being conducted by the state auditor’s office. This request was made based upon information received in April by the administration and Board of Education. Therefore, any accusation of a “cover up” is unfounded, misleading and unfair. The district has cooperated fully with the auditor’s office during the course of this investigation. We expect the audit to be completed in the coming weeks and look forward to receiving the final report. It is also worth noting that during Mr. Miller’s tenure, the district was subject to numerous regularly-scheduled state financial audits, all of which came back clean.

Mr. Elder’s ad also contains the inaccurate statement that the superintendent announced a “$7.3 million shortfall.” In the course of marketing the referendum and explaining the proposed tax increase to the public, the district has never referenced a specific dollar amount regarding budget shortfalls. The $7.3 million is the amount of additional local revenue that will be generated if the referendum passes.

Mr. Elder goes on to state that the district has offered no explanation for the “disappearance” of the money. This statement implies that district wasted more than $7 million through financial mismanagement. This is simply not the case. Throughout the referendum process, the district has offered numerous detailed explanations of the need for additional funding. This information is on our district website and has been published by several local media outlets. To suggest that the district has been less than forthright with the public or has engineered a “cover up” is inaccurate and irresponsible.

The fact remains that a current expense referendum is needed regardless of the ongoing state audit or the issues involving our former chief financial officer.

District enrollment has grown by 1,681 students during the past six years and now stands at an all-time high of 10,467. By 2026, enrollment is projected to be nearly 13,000 students. Such growth has created a need for additional teachers and paraprofessionals, classroom supplies and materials, technology, textbooks and school safety initiatives. Meeting these needs has put a strain on the district’s budget, as state and local revenues simply have not been able to keep pace with expenses.

While statistics show that our per-pupil funding rate from the state has increased in recent years, these increases have not been enough to offset our needs in terms of enrollment growth.

Additionally, since Fiscal Year 2008 the state has cut more than $58 million statewide for reading resource teachers, math specialists, technology, limited English proficiency programs, school discipline and other important programs.

Currently, the district cannot hire most of the additional teachers authorized through the annual unit count. Each teacher requires an average of $30,000 in local funding for salary and other employment costs. Due to enrollment growth, we have hired 194 new teachers since 2011. This has resulted in an expenditure of nearly $6 million.

In addition, the district spends about $1.2 million in local funds every year on school security measures. These include the placement of armed security monitors in every school to assure student safety. Since 2013, the district has also paid nearly $3.5 million in local funds to offset cost overruns from construction projects approved in 2013. These overruns were caused by delays in the State of Delaware’s permitting and approval process for certain projects.

The district recently implemented a series of cost-cutting measures, including reducing school, curriculum and Board of Education discretionary budgets by 30 percent. The operating budgets for district office and the personnel department have been reduced by 50 percent. The Outdoor Education Center at Ingram Pond has been temporarily closed to save on salaries, transportation, energy and supplies.

Through administrative restructuring, the district has also saved money by allowing a director, an assistant superintendent, a principal and two assistant principal positions to remain vacant. District-sponsored travel for staff has also been curtailed for 2016-2017. These reductions have amounted to a savings of approximately $3 million.

In his most recent ad, Mr. Elder accuses the superintendent of giving “misleading quotes” about the recent budget cuts at district office. He used an incorrect figure of $12,229,000 to deliberately misrepresent the overall percentage of these cuts. In an e-mail dated October 20, the district’s finance director explained to Mr. Elder that the district office and personnel discretionary budgets, which do not include salaries, were reduced from $261,358 to $130,679. This is a reduction of 50 percent. Mr. Elder, however, continues to provide misleading information to the public despite our best efforts to explain the budget crisis and need for a referendum.

Lastly, while Mr. Elder has consistently vilified the superintendent for the proposed tax increase, the final decision on every referendum is made by the Board of Education. Delaware school superintendents do not have the authority to unilaterally enact a referendum or determine the amount of a tax increase. Minutes of the September 26 Board of Education meeting reflect the vote to host a referendum on November 22.

The district is committed to being a good steward of our taxpayers’ dollars. This is evident in the property tax reductions implemented by our Board of Education during the past three years.

We are further committed to being open and honest about the upcoming referendum.

A wealth of information is available at irsd.net/referendum.

Additionally, the district has established a special Referendum Hotline, (302) 436-1079, where residents can direct their questions about this initiative. We encourage anyone with questions or concerns about this initiative to call the hotline for additional information.

We sincerely appreciate the public’s support of our schools and hope residents will disregard Mr. Elder’s misguided accusations and support the current expense referendum on November 22.

It is the support of our caring residents that has made Indian River a “Model of Excellence” and one of the finest public school systems in the State of Delaware.

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