When it comes to building a new elementary school for Cape Henlopen students, traffic along Route 24 remains a concern for area residents.
“The school needs to be somewhere else other than Route 24,” said Kenny Hopkins during the March 24 community meeting held at Cape Henlopen High School.
About 50 people attended a March 24 meeting where residents learned about Cape Henlopen School District's $31 million plan to build a 720-student elementary school on a 25-acre parcel across from Beacon Middle School and new classrooms at Beacon and Mariner Middle School, the district's two middle schools.
Most residents, including Kathy Joseph, appeared to agree with the proposal.
"We like Cape," she said, adding she was concerned about the future of the Lewes School. Fulton said Sussex Consortium could use more space at the Lewes School if the opportunity arose.
Martha Eisenhour was one of four residents in attendance for a March 25 meeting at Beacon Middle School, across Route 24 from the site of the proposed elementary school. Eisenhour lives near the proposed school and said she supports the new building, but she questioned whether the Delaware Department of Transportation will make needed road improvements.
“At what point does DelDOT commit?” she asked.
Brian Bassett, director of adminstrative services for Cape, said DelDOT has a five-year plan to widen Route 24 and improve intersections. According to DelDOT's website, the first phase will widen Route 24 from Route 1 to Mulberry Knoll Road. John Gaines, program manager for DelDOT, said a second phase would include paving of Route 24 between Mulberry Knoll Road and the Love Creek Bridge, but the road will not be widened.
In addition, Gaines said, current traffic counts do not merit a new traffic signal at the Mulberry Road intersection. “It's only speculation, but if enough new development occurs, there is good potential for a signal there,” he said.
Bassett said construction money for the new school project could pay for some road improvements: about 100 feet of road improvements on each side of a Route 24 entrance and possibly a half mile of improvements on Mullberry Knoll Road.
“We know we'll have to pay some, but we want to pay our fair share that would be expected in any construction project,” Bassett said. “We won't be responsible for all the road improvement work.”
A Council on Transportation was considering road widening on Route 24 between Mulberry Knoll Road and Love Creek, but Bassett said he did not know whether the group included it the Capital Transportation Program which will be sent to the General Assembly for approval by June.
He said the district will stay on top of DelDOT's scheduled road improvements especially if the new elementary is approved.
The March 25 meeting wrapped up four community gatherings district officials held to explain details of the Wednesday, April 2, referendum for a new elementary school and classroom space at the middle schools – six classrooms at Beacon and six at Mariner.
If the referendum is approved, an average district homeowner would pay $59 a year more for their $250,000 home assessed at $21,546. Senior citizens 65 years old or older are eligible for 50 percent savings on their property taxes up to $500.
The total property tax rate increase is 27 cents, which breaks down to 10 cents per $100 of assessed property for capital improvement costs, and another 17 cents for operating expenses. The 10-cent increase would expire after 30 years; the 17 cents would be a permanent tax increase.
The state has agreed to pay 60 percent of the $31 million total construction costs, leaving residents about $11 million to pay through a property tax increase.
Residents 18 or older are eligible to vote in the referendum; a photo ID and proof of residence is required.
Superintendent Robert Fulton said the meetings have provided an opportunity to explain the plan.
“I've enjoyed every minute of it,” he said. “We've met a lot of nice and supportive people.”
The referendum will be held Wednesday, April 2. The polls will be open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Cape Henlopen High School, Lewes; Mariner Middle School, Milton; and Rehoboth Elementary School, Rehoboth Beach.
Whether the referendum passes or fails, six new consortium classes will be added to Beacon Middle School – the state will pay 100 percent of the costs to add them.
The district also intends to realign student populations at all the elementary schools in order to balance them socio-economically and racially, regardless of the referendum results. A task force will be reconvened to address needed improvements at the remaining elementary schools. If the referendum fails, he said, the task force would have to explore options to handle student growth.
Ron MacArthur contributed to this article