Budget cuts in IRSD amidst talk of two possible referendums

Date Published: 
September 2, 2016

Indian River School District officials have been telling people for years now that the student population is growing much faster than once anticipated. This month, the school board slashed the district’s budget by about 13 percent, amidst plans to potentially build three new buildings and renovate three more in the near future.

There are still plenty of “ifs” floating around the issue, but if everything goes according to plan, and the school board approves, the district could be going to public referendum twice during the current school year, in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017.

Budget pressures

First, there’s the shrinking budget.

“Since I’ve been superintendent [since 2006], we’ve grown by 25 percent,” which means more chairs, books and paper. “You need stuff,” said Superintendent Susan Bunting.

But the fiscal-year-2017 budget has dropped to $44.88 million (a decrease of $6.87 million from last year’s $51.75 million).

With the school board’s approval, Bunting expects a current-expense referendum could take place this autumn.

The IRSD will have a firmer grasp of the numbers after the official student unit count in September and the big annual influx of tax money in October.

How much does IRSD need?

“I can’t say definitely,” said Financial Director Jan Steele. “In the discretionary budget, we cut approximately $3 million, but I certainly would like that $3 million back. And then, anticipating that we are going to grow by 20 to 30 [teaching] units, then you need salaries for the local share of those teacher salaries, so I really can’t put a number on it right now,” without board discussion and numbers in front of her, she said.

After the upcoming Sept. 26 school board meeting, Bunting said, she expects to have a better idea of how many more “pennies” per $100 of assessment the district might request.

The district’s reserve fund has dropped below the healthy 10 percent mark, said Steele, and it might take a few years to return to that level.

“We’re trying to be prudent stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Bunting said. “We want to be efficient, and we want to plan … and keep that reserve at a point that’s comfortable for us and taxpayers.”

So where has the money gone?

“As long as we’re continuing to grow, our teacher base grows,” said Mark Steele, assistant superintendent. “We’re just looking to fund what we’re generating, because our kids are significantly higher every year, by two, three-hundred kids.”

That means hiring at least 25 more teachers annually.

The IRSD is primarily funded through State funding and local property taxes. But, while the State automatically increases its share (based on student population), the local share is generally set in stone.

Construction has also surpassed the budget in a major way.

“You always plan for overrun,” Mark Steele said, but the district didn’t anticipate the Delaware Department of Transportation requiring so many road improvements, such as sidewalk installation across the street from a school undergoing upgrades.

Plus, “You don’t know what’s behind that wall before you peel it off,” Mark Steele said of the uncertain nature of construction projects in general.

But “before we run into difficulty,” the district will tighten its belt and be more frugal, Bunting said.

Cutting the budget

“This does not involve cutting any staff members or salary,” Bunting said. In fact, most staff are in the middle of a four-year collective bargaining contract, which guaranteed some pay bumps this year.

But every school is losing a solid 30 percent from its discretionary fund. Maybe that means hiring fewer performers for special student reward assemblies, postponing a shipment of new furniture, ordering partial truckloads of paper or buying a new laptop cart another year.

“Principals are judicious, and they are wise spenders,” Bunting said, so they’ll decide what is best for their buildings.

The curriculum area lost 30 percent, despite the district recently purchasing a new reading program to meet new education standards. That might mean postponing new learning materials or purchasing fewer backups.

“Really, with all of it, it’s just really looking at and evaluating whether it needs to be purchased right now,” said Jan Steele.

Meanwhile, the central office (the Indian River Educational Complex) is cutting back its budget by 50 percent, which is no small figure.

“We feel we need to be more gallant than we’re asking everyone else to be. We’ll figure it out,” said Bunting, who said, if needed, she’s willing to “buy paper out of my own pockets, because I need a certain kind of tablet.”

Professional development trips for the administrators are completely out.

Athletic fields budgets remained the same, but overall athletic budgets decreased by 5 percent.

The school board’s own budget lost 30 percent. It usually includes mileage or refreshments at board meetings, but the cuts also mean they’ll likely postpone re-joining the Delaware School Boards Association.

Some areas lost more than half of their budget, including the vehicles/fleet budget. Contingency budget items, asbestos/air quality, new textbooks and staff recruiting were taken almost entirely off the table.

In human resources, money was pulled from tuition reimbursement and “Extra Pay for Extra Responsibilities.”

Intensive learning centers within regular schools dropped by various amounts, falling by as little as 5 percent at Phillip C. Showell Elementary to 50 percent at IR High School.

Bunting said the district is still committed to funding the big things, such as student services, teachers, para-educators and school safety (which was cut from about $909,000 to $330,500).

“We firmly believe we need to be doing what we’re doing with our school safety monitors,” school resource officers, the locked doors and swipe cards. “You can’t get in any of our schools … unless you are approved to go through. Those are, I feel, wise investments,” Bunting said.

District officials realized the budget was going to be a significant problem about a year ago. Many great project ideas up come through committee meetings, Bunting said, but they were “eating away” at the budget, the staff noticed.

“People come in with things that sound like great ideas, but I think our board is learning more and more about the budget and how school budgets work,” especially as Jan Steele has worked with them recently, Bunting said.

What the district may request in the spring is based entirely on the Delaware Department of Education’s response to its requests. If the State only allows a few renovations, then IR might only need a major capital improvement referendum. If the State allows new schools, IR may need another current-expense referendum to afford hiring a nurse and principal.

Do officials really think they can pass two potential referendums in one year?

“Yeah,” Mark Steele said. ”We are growing at such a fast rate that we have to go for a current-expense.”

Districts can try twice per year to pass a current-expense referendum. If an autumn referendum fails, they could always try again in spring.

But that’s up to the school board.

Building more schools

Coinciding with their need for more money is IR’s need for space. After a winter’s worth of planning at the IRSD Futures Committee, the district officially submitted six Certificate of Necessity (CN) requests to the Department of Education for major construction.

“The State could approve all of them, none of them or some of them,” Mark Steele said. ”It’s purely the State’s option on what they will support or not.”

Other school districts want that money, too, so DOE will perform site visits in autumn and then give an answer in November.

IRSD has made six requests: a new elementary school at the Ingram Pond property in Millsboro; a new middle school on the Sussex Central High School property north of Millsboro; replacement of the Howard T. Ennis School building in Georgetown; approximately 26 additional classrooms, an expanded cafeteria and another gymnasium at Sussex Central High School; renovation and expansion of the cafeteria at Phillip C. Showell Elementary School in Selbyville; and stairwell and mechanical room repairs at Lord Baltimore Elementary School in Ocean View.

Ennis is a state school that serves the county, so that project would be 100 percent State-funded and not included in IRSD’s major capital improvement referendum.

These schools “desperately” need more space, Mark Steele said.

The breaking point is coming, officials noted, as the weight of so many additional students starts to wear on the schools. Lunch periods are starting too early or late, just to feed all the kids. Teachers don’t have their own classrooms, sometimes relegated to pushing handcarts to their next destination. Offices and auditoriums are doubling as classrooms. Cafeterias are storing equipment in the hallway for lack of storage.

In terms of geography, the IRSD is the biggest school district, and now that land is filling up.

This isn’t even normal growth. The State of Delaware projected that the IRSD would have about 10,155 students by the year 2020. Ever the trendsetter, IR hit that number early, in 2015.

This week, the head count hit 10,500, which wasn’t supposed to happen until 2030, Mark Steele said. Instead, the former math teacher estimated, the IRSD will be approaching 12,000 students by 2020.

”At this point, we have been talking about our growth, and I can honestly say this year it’s not slowing down,” he said.

The CN paperwork was submitted a week before the Aug. 31 deadline. After State approval, the district would await a final decision from the school board before taking the issue to public referendum.

District officials hesitated to share the anticipated costs of construction before the State has made any decisions.

But Mark Steele said the board is very specific about how money is spent. If 3 cents are earmarked for science, then the chemistry department needs to use it or risk losing it.

The tax rate

Land values affect Sussex County’s property tax rates, which the board approved this summer at $2.578 per $100 of assessed property value for its portion of property owners’ annual tax bills. Of that, the $1.86 base for current expenses can only be changed via public referendum.

The overall tax rate decreased from last year’s $2.689, since the district is paying down debt on previous capital expense projects, despite a few cents of increase in tuition for very special services.

There is also an additional $12 per adult capitation rate, also only changeable by referendum.

Meanwhile, the IRSD is in the middle of a financial audit by the Delaware State Auditor of Accounts. The audit began in May, amidst IRSD’s chief financial officer being placed on paid administrative leave, followed by his sudden retirement.

Since May, district officials have provided no updates or timeline for the audit, only saying that the audit continues and that IRSD officials are fully cooperating. The audit was a mutual decision between the IRSD and the Auditor’s Office. But neither entity would specify what the Auditor’s Office is looking for or whether there are concerns of money stolen or spent inappropriately.

The 2017-fiscal-year budget can be found online at www.boarddocs.com/de/irsd/Board.nsf/Public (Click “Aug 22, 2016,” “View the Agenda” and “3.12: FY 2017 Budget”).