Growing student population spurs need

Continuing student population growth in the Indian River School District means a referendum is necessary, according to administrators.

The district referendum on capital improvement and current expenses is up for vote Tuesday. If passed, it will result in a maximum possible tax increase of $87.55 for the average district property owner, or $0.35 per $100 of assessed property value.

IRSD is asking district residents for a total of $63,405,400, which is 40 percent of the necessary funding. The balance, $95,108,565, would come from the state if the referendum passes.

Major capital improvements

The referendum has two ballot items: major capital improvements and current expense.

Construction projects on the major capital improvements ballot:

A new, 309,799 square foot Sussex Central High School at $56,337,400.  Eight new classrooms at Indian River High School costing $5,716,700. Four new classrooms at Selbyville Middle School costing $1,351,300.

To save money, Millsboro Middle School would relocate to the existing Sussex Central High School and convert the middle school into an additional elementary school. The new, 2,200-student high school would be built adjacent to the existing one on land owned by the district.

The tax increase would be phased in over a four-year period, reaching the height of $0.35 per $100 of assessed property value, or $68.96 per year on average, in fiscal year 2023. After that, the tax rate would decrease annually.

Current expense

The current expense ballot accounts for operating expenses for a high school and an elementary school, including staff, curriculum, supplies, transportation and utility expenses, at a cost of $1,488,025.

Unlike the major capital improvements portion of the tax increase, the current expense portion does not level off and then decline over the years, but stays at a rate increased by $18.59, on average, each year.

For the new elementary school, the district will cover one-time expenses like instructional materials, technology, furniture, library books and playgrounds, without a property tax increase.

A new elementary school will mean redrawing attendance boundaries within the district.

Past, present and future

Currently 10,697 students are enrolled in the district, up 1,826 since 2011. District officials say enrollment is expected to reach 12,473 by 2024.

The last successful IRSD referendum, in March 2017, garnered $7.53 million for current operating expenses. A few months prior, district residents voted down that proposal by about 30 votes.

The hesitation may have been partially due to the Dec. 2016 state auditor report on the district. The report, released days before the referendum, revealed then-Chief Financial Officer Patrick Miller had engaged in a slew of inappropriate financial transactions with district funds and that IRSD was grossly lacking in proper financial controls.

Superintendent Mark Steele, assistant superintendent at the time, believes the district has come a long way since then.

“Quite honestly, we’ve gone from being financially unstable two years ago to, when we hit June 30 this year, being very strong financially,” Steele said. “Just because of the changes we’ve made with our operations, we’re not going to be looking for current expenses for a while after this one.”

But with homebuilding and land development booming, will there ever be a point when the disrict won’t be asking for or preparing to ask for more money?

“As long as the population keeps going up, of course we’re going to have space issues,” Steele said. “However, this particular referendum we think should take care of things for years to come. Taking a look at anything in the future could be more of a minor-type thing.”

For more information, contact the Referendum Hotline at 302-436-1079 or visit irsd.net/referendum.