Voters in the Indian River School District will be voting next week on a proposed tax increase to fund additional classroom space and the hiring of new teachers.
But the outcome of the referendum vote also could determine whether the district finally begins offering full-day kindergarten.
"Right now, we're the only school district in Delaware without it," school board member and former North Georgetown Elementary School principal Jim Hudson said. "That means the vast majority of our kindergarteners are receiving 500 fewer hours of instruction than other students in the state and that's not a good way for them to start the educational process."
Although state law has required all school districts in Delaware to offer full-day kindergarten since the start of the 2008-2009 school year, Indian River has received annual waivers from the state, based on space restrictions at several of the district's seven elementary schools.
North Georgetown Elementary School, for instance, currently offers eight half-day kindergarten classes, four in the morning and four in the afternoon. Due to space restrictions, however, six of those classes actually meet at the Howard T. Ennis School about two miles away.
District Superintendent Susan Bunting said the 38 additional rooms at schools throughout the district, as well as the additional 20 teachers also proposed as part of the Jan. 29 referendum vote, would ease those space issues enough to make room for full-day kindergarten, which would essentially double the number of 5-year-olds attending each elementary school at a given time.
"If the referendum is approved, I'm not sure the state will continue granting us the waiver, either," she said. "That means, if both referendum questions are approved, we would most likely begin offering full-day kindergarten starting with the 2013-2014 school year."
Bunting and Hudson said they are confident the district's elementary schools will be able to handle the additional short-term space constraints between the start of full-day kindergarten and the completion of the proposed classroom additions, which district officials say are unlikely to completed until the late summer of 2014.
"It might mean some tighter classrooms in some schools, but we will figure it out," Bunting said. "We've been discussing it with our principals for several months and I believe we will be able to make it happen."
One measure the district is undertaking to ensure class space is available in Georgetown is a roughly $525,000 renovation project at Georgetown Middle School that will convert the building's existing shop rooms into 10 classrooms.
District officials said Georgetown and North Georgetown kindergartens would attend classes in those rooms after the completion of the project, which is not tied to the referendum.
If the referendum does not pass, those classrooms instead will be used by the middle school and the adjacent Georgetown Elementary School to handle their steadily-increasing enrollment.
Hudson said he believes the need for full-day kindergarten is too great for the district to postpone its implementation any longer.
"One of the biggest things pushing this is the state's adoption of common core standards, which means that some of what kids are expected to know in first grade now will be taught in kindergarten in the future," he said. "The poverty rate in the district is over 60 percent, which means a lot of our kids already are not getting the exposure they need. We need to make sure they have as much opportunity as possible to be successful."
The Rundown: IRSD Referendum
Voters in the Indian River School District will head to the polls on Jan. 29 to cast their ballots on a two-part referendum that seeks to raise funding for additional classroom space and new teachers.
The first of the two referendum questions seeks 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 eight classrooms at North Georgetown Elementary, and eight classrooms and a new kitchen at the Georgetown Elementary/Georgetown Middle School complex. The remainder of the construction funds would be paid by the state.
The second question seeks an 11.5-cent property tax rate increase to collect $1.81 million in annual local funding to hire 20 new teachers, as well as cover the furniture, supplies and added utility costs 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 have said the two rate hikes together would increase the tax bill for residents 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.
District officials are slated to make a presentation about the referendum proposal during Georgetown Town Council’s 7 p.m. meeting at 39 The Circle on Wednesday. The district also will hold a final information meeting about the referendum at East Millsboro Elementary School, 29346 Iron Branch Road, at 7 p.m. Thursday.
All residents of the district older than 18 are eligible to vote on the referendum. Voter registration is not required, but residents must provide proof of identification or residency.
Voting will take place from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the following schools: East Millsboro Elementary, Georgetown Elementary, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary, Lord Baltimore Elementary and Selbyville Middle.