Another Indian River referendum spurs question about process

Will the third time be a charm for the Indian River School District?

Last year, in February and May, the district asked the public for funds to build a new high school. Both times, voters said no. They’ll vote again Feb. 13.

Ever-increasing enrollment has resulted in an overcrowding crisis. The total enrollment is 10,942 students, an increase of 2,000-plus since 2011. Enrollment is projected to continue to grow to 12,137 students by 2024.

Overcrowding is especially severe at Sussex Central High School, where more than 1,800 are in a building designed for 1,500. That number is expected to be close to 2,000 by 2024.

Ten portable classrooms – trailers – are in use, creating safety concerns. Common areas such as the cafeteria, auditorium and hallways are no longer large enough for the student population.

The hallways are particularly unsafe. Between classes, students are shoulder to shoulder. It’s impossible to walk at a regular pace. Joining students in the halls are 22 teachers whose “classrooms” are on carts.

“If this referendum is not successful, the State of Delaware is unlikely to approve any major capital improvement projects in our district for several years,” Indian River Superintendent Mark Steele said. “This will delay the construction process indefinitely. Meanwhile, overcrowding will worsen and the educational environment in our schools will be adversely affected. We will also have to purchase more outdoor portable classrooms, which are costly and present safety concerns.”

He expects that attendance boundaries will be drawn to shift more students to the southern end of the district, should the referendum fail.

The consequences of another failed referendum prompt the question: Is this the best way to fund Delaware schools?

Starting a discussion

Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, introduced House Bill 129 in the General Assembly in May. It would have allowed school boards to raise taxes for operational funding as they see fit, with certain limitations.

Jaques is a member of the Southern Regional Education Board, the Education Commission of the States and the National Council of State Legislatures.

“I reached out to my colleagues at these events and asked what it is they’re doing that we’re not doing. And what it is, it’s the funding system,” he said. “We are one of four states, I believe, that do not allow what I’m trying to propose, where you can have operational money without referendum.”

However, Jacques now plans to strike the bill.

“It's served its purpose of getting the education committee to discuss school funding,” he said in a Jan. 6 email.

Sussex Living reached out to all the members of the House and Senate education committees. By deadline, two members had responded.

Rep. Michael Smith (R–Pike Creek) said that school funding was the main topic in monthly House education committee meetings throughout the summer and fall. The discussions may have limited effect, since many committee members didn’t attend the out-of-session meetings.

“Discussion doesn’t solve the problem, but we all do agree how we fund schools is a major problem. There are so many facets to take into accounts that can’t be dealt with in a vacuum,” Smith said.

Smith is co-chairing the Educator’s Task Force for the Reading Consortium, so his focus this session is on teacher recruitment and retention.

“I'll be ready to take a leadership role on school funding when that process begins,” he said. “We have run out the clock on an outdated system that isn't serving our children, teachers, taxpayers or schools. It’s time that we, as policymakers, do what we can to fix this broken system to ensure students are getting a high quality education and to attract and retain teachers in Delaware.”

He made no mention of when “that process” will begin.

Lawsuit forcing change

The other House education committee member to respond was Rep. Rich Collins (R–Millsboro), whose district is in the Indian River School District. He did so through House Republican Caucus communications officer Joseph Fulgham.

“Rep. Collins has no position on the IRSD referendum. That is a matter between the district and the citizens residing in its service area,” Fulgham said.

He said that no consensus on reformed school funding had been reached in the committee, but a pending lawsuit could have a significant effect.

The American Civil Liberties Union Delaware, on behalf of Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the Delaware NAACP, filed a suit in Jan. 2018. Citing state-commissioned reports, it claims schools aren’t being provided with the resources necessary to give disadvantaged students a quality education. That’s partly because, the lawsuit claims, schools raise funds through property taxes and Delaware properties haven’t been reassessed for value in decades.

The case is still making its way through the courts.

Shaking up school boards

“School boards determine the rate and the time and all of a referendum,” said Jacques. “But when the referendum fails, they’re not being held accountable.”

When he introduced House Bill 129, he knew people would have reservations about granting schools boards more taxing powers. He hoped to remedy that with a partner bill that gave people more chances to vote school board members out.

Originally, Rep. Paul Baumbach’s (D–Newark) House Bill 134 would have changed school board terms from five to three years and paid members $100 per meeting, in an effort to encourage more people to run.

The bill quickly made it out of committee, but the payment clause was removed and another amendment changed the term from three to four years. Baumbach said he’ll be working to gain sufficient votes to pass the bill now that the legislature is back in session.