About two dozen people on Monday attended the first in a series of information meetings that Indian River School District administrators are holding in advance of a referendum vote later this month.
But afterwards, several people who attended the meeting at North Georgetown Elementary School said they still hadn’t decided whether to vote in favor of the proposed school property tax increase.
“I’m all for great schools and educating students, but as a taxpayer, I’ve got to look out for my future, too,” said Sharon Weller, the president of the PTO at Millsboro Middle School. “The district just built two new high schools and now they’re asking for more money. I want to know whether they’ll be coming back in a few years to ask for even more.”
The Jan. 29 referendum will include two separate ballot questions, each requiring a “for” or “against” vote.
The first question will seek a 3.2-cent increase in the property tax rate, which would raise about $438,400 a year. That funding would be used to pay the annual debt service on the district’s $4.4 million share of a proposed $11 million construction project that would add 38 new classrooms at six schools, including 8 classrooms at North Georgetown Elementary, and 8 classrooms and a new kitchen the Georgetown Elementary/Georgetown Middle School complex. The remainder of the construction funds would be paid by the state.
The second question will seek an 11.5-cent property tax rate increase to raise $1.81 million in annual local funding for the hiring of 20 new teachers necessitated by enrollment increases, as well as provide the new classrooms with furniture and supplies and cover added utility and fuel expenses related to the proposed building expansions.
If both questions are approved, the district’s school tax rate would increase by 6.5 percent from $2.623 per $100 of assessed property value to $2.77 per $100.
District officials on Monday said the two rate hikes would increase the tax bill for residents in the district with a house worth $199,000 to $250,000 by an average of $38.05.
Even with the proposed increases, Indian River would continue to have the lowest school tax rate in Sussex County, they added.
District officials say the new classrooms and staff are needed to prevent overcrowding that has resulted from steady enrollment growth in schools in the northern end of the district. Total district enrollment has jumped 16 percent since 2005.
At North Georgetown Elementary, for instance, school officials have had to convert an art room into a classroom this year with tentative plans to convert a computer lab into a classroom next year. Six half-day kindergarten classes at North Georgetown also have been moved to the Howard T. Ennis School this year due to limited space.
“As you can see, we’re forced to store things here in the school gym because we don’t have any nooks or crannies left in this building,” Indian River Superintendent Susan Bunting said during Monday’s meeting. “Regardless of whether one or both of these referendum questions pass, the students will keep coming and we need to put them somewhere. Without new classrooms we’ll be forced to increase our class sizes.”
Some of those who attended Monday’s meeting said they were concerned property owners in the district are being asked to carry the burden, especially when many of the district’s new students might be the children of renters and other transient residents.
Georgetown Town Commissioner Linda Dennis said she also has not made up her mind about whether she will vote for or against the referendum questions.
“My goal in going to the meeting was to learn more about why this is needed and what it will be used for, both for myself and to answer questions from my constituents, although I was not there to represent the town,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think these public hearings have come too late in the process. I think a lot more effort needs to be made to educate the public about the need and the process.”
District officials will hold three more public meetings about the referendum in the coming weeks.
Long Neck Elementary School at 26064 School Lane near Millsboro will host at a similar meeting on Jan. 10, followed by Phillip C. Showell Elementary School at 41 Bethany Road in Selbyville on Jan. 15 and East Millsboro Elementary School at 29346 Iron Branch Road in Millsboro on Jan. 17.