Cape sets tax rate for new elementary

Building, staff to cost average homeowner $59 a year
A new elementary school is proposed across Route 24 from Beacon Middle School. The existing school boundaries, shown, will be redrawn. SOURCE FILE
February 7, 2014

The Cape Henlopen school board says an average taxpayer will pay an additional $59 a year in new taxes to pay for building and operating a new school.

“We're trying to make the increase as small as possible,” said Superintendent Robert Fulton.

The board set the tax rate for building the new school at its Feb. 3 meeting. The proposed increase, which goes to voters in an April 2 referendum, is 27 cents per $100 of assessed property. The total cost for the new school and six new classrooms at both middle schools is about $31 million, of which the state pays 60 percent. Residents will be asked to pay the $11 million local share.

Whether or not the referendum passes, the state will pay 100 percent for six consortium classrooms at Beacon Middle School.

Ten cents of the proposed tax increase would go toward construction of the new elementary that would be built across from Beacon Middle School on Route 24. Bonds would be sold to pay for the building, and then paid off over 20 years through a debt service account, said Director of Business Operations Oliver Gumbs. The remaining 17 cents would pay for operating expenses associated with salaries and utilities needed to run the new school. The cost would be rolled into the district's current expenses and be a permanent increase, he said. The current tax rate is $2.97 per $100 of assessed property.

“There are start up costs and then there are ongoing costs to operate the school,” Gumbs said.

In Cape Henlopen School District, Fulton said, property is assessed at about 10 percent of the market share. A home valued at $250,000, the district average, has an assessed value of about $21,500. Based on that amount, he said, a homeowner would pay $22 a year more in property taxes in 2015 to pay for building costs. In 2017, when the school opens and personnel costs kick in, Fulton said, another $37 a year increase will go in effect. The overall increase between capital and operating expenses will total $59 for the average homeowner, he said.

The district currently has about $29 million in debt service accumulated over seven approved referendums. These include building projects for the high school, both middle schools and renovations at the elementary schools. Debt payment on those projects is scheduled to expire starting in 2021 continuing through 2028.

More than a year ago, board members began the process of figuring out what to do about continuing student growth and the district's aging elementary schools. Already this year, Fulton said, there are 100 more students than last year.

Most of the elementary schools already use trailers for classroom space as do the middle schools. This comes at a cost to the district, Fulton said. It costs $128,000 to lease one modular for five years – the district leases four units for a total cost of more than $500,000 over five years.

The new school would free up classroom space within the existing elementary schools allowing the district to get rid of the unsightly trailers, said board member Sara Wilkinson.

“We've got kids who have to walk outside to use the restroom,” she said.

With more room, existing schools would be able to use classroom space the way it was intended, Fulton said.

Most elementary schools in the district use space never intended for classrooms: a renovated locker room in Milton, a basement room with no windows at Rehoboth and class time held on a stage at Shields.

“All schools will benefit spacewise if the referendum passes,” Fulton said.

Public opinion, however, at least in the Milton area is that the new school proposal will only benefit Shields, Wilkinson said.

“Word on the street is that we don't want this referendum because it's not going to affect Milton,” she said.

Some residents have expressed concerns about the accuracy of a University of Delaware population study completed in the fall. The study determined there is a concentration of young families in the Route 24 area where the new school is proposed. However, the study conflicts with information released by the governor's office that more older residents are moving in, said board member Sandi Minard.

“People are doubting whether young families are moving in,” she said.

Board member Jen Burton suggested researching the demographics of several new developments to determine how many young families are moving to the area.

“Anything we can do to get the correct information out there,” Minard said.

In the next couple of months, Fulton said he and Director of Administrative Services Brian Bassett plan to attend as many community meetings as possible to inform the public about the new school plan.

They can be reached at 302-645-6686.