Georgetown residents Jim and Pat Turley were divided Tuesday on whether to support the Indian River School District's referendum.
"I question whether the school district is using the funds it has now properly," Jim said after he and his wife cast their ballots on the two referendum questions at Georgetown Elementary. "I'm not confident this money they want will be used for what they say it will."
Pat, a former home economics teacher in the district, said she's seen firsthand how the kitchen used jointly by Georgetown Elementary School and Georgetown Middle School needs to be replaced – one of several construction projects that would be funded by thought the additional $2.2 million a year sought through the referendum.
"I know they need it because it's dangerous and incredibly tight for the people working in there to serve both schools," she said. "(The district) also said they desperately need 121 new teachers and I'd like our daughter to be able to get a job."
The Turleys were among a steady stream of voters who cast votes on the two-question referendum at Georgetown Elementary School soon after the town's lone polling place opened at 10 a.m.
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.
That was small comfort to voters like Sarah West of Georgetown who said she voted against both measures.
"I don't think anything will be accomplished by spending more money on schools," she said.
Les Hawes said he also was concerned about the referendum's effect on his tax bill.
"My question is, is it worth a tax increase for what they're trying to get out of it," he said. "How much bang are they going to get for our buck? Not much in my opinion."
District officials argue the added construction and additional staff are needed to accommodate the nearly 19 percent jump in enrollment in Indian River schools over the last decade.
The added space also would allow the district to add full-day kindergarten. Currently, Indian River is the only district in the state that has not instituted full-day kindergarten since it became a state requirement at the start of the 2008-2009 school year.
Several voters said Tuesday that the promise of full-day kindergarten is what helped sway them to support the referendum questions.
"Because we're the only district that doesn't have it, these children are behind all the other students in the state," Bernice Hitchens said. "That means they have a lot of catching up to do when they get into the first grade."
Niguelina Cruz said the lack of full-day kindergarten also affects parents.
"Parents are suffering because they have to pay extra money for babysitting during the half of the day that their kids aren't in kindergarten," she said. "When you look at the increase in taxes and look at the benefit, I think most people will be okay."
Other voters, however, said they felt the district did not do enough to explain how the money would be used on other programs also proposed to receive some of the referendum funding, such as an international baccalaureate program and AVID, a college readiness program.
"My problem is they didn't say how much would be allotted to that I my understanding is AVID would cost as much as $500,000 for just 340 kids," Susan Wahl said. "(District officials) said the program would only take certain kids and not students with IEPs. I think that's discrimination."
Supporters of the referendum, like Linda Messick, said they felt the choice was clear.
"Our schools need tremendous help and it's well and good to insulate yourself from that when you don't have a child in the district," she said. "But I feel an investment in our schools and in our children is an investment in everyone's future and we really need it."
Nancy Fritz agreed.
"My grandchildren, my great-grandchildren and their children will benefit so I think it's worth a small tax increase," she said. "It's for our future and, in the long run, I think Georgetown will benefit."
Polls close at 8 p.m. tonight.
Check back with the Sussex Countian for the results as they become available.