Cape Henlopen school board has set the date for an upcoming referendum, asking residents to approve a new middle school and additions to the high school – and also a tax increase for current expenses.
Cape Henlopen was the only district in the state to receive a certificate of necessity for new construction in 2018, said Superintendent Robert Fulton.
“We have enrollment capacity issues at our schools, and we realize a middle school and high school have to be next,” he said.
Enrollment continues to grow – about 200 more students this year, he said. Last year's enrollment was 5,256; the Sept. 30 unit count showed an enrollment of 5,451.
“We know we have larger groups coming through the elementary schools and into the middle schools and eventually the high school,” Fulton said. “The need is definitely there.”
In June, school officials proposed building a third middle school and expanding the high school with no new tax increase. They're sticking to this plan.
“We're not asking the debt service to be raised any higher than our public has already given us permission to do. We're just asking to use that money on a different project,” said Fulton.
The district has saved money on elementary school construction, and the district has also benefitted from a favorable bond market that has resulted in savings. Without voter approval, property taxes will go down.
The cost for a third middle school, and a 20-classroom addition and cafeteria expansion at the high school would be about $55 million, with the state committing to pay $34 million. The local share is $21 million, which would be covered by the debt service tax rate voters approved for elementaries in 2014 and 2016.
A current expense increase, however, is needed to hire employees and staff for the new middle school.
A middle school has more staffing needs than an elementary school because of services, functions and related arts that occur in middle school, Fulton said. Staffing would include a constable at both the middle and high school for added security, he said.
Unlike a debt service increase that expires once the debt is paid, a current expense increase is permanent.
“We don't want to sacrifice passing a referendum because of current expense, but we also need enough current-expense money to open the building up with the staffing necessary,” he said.
No tax-rate information has been approved. Fulton recommends permanently increasing the current expense tax by 20 cents in two installments over three years.
Under this proposal, the first increase would begin in 2021 when an average homeowner would pay about $12 more in property taxes. Three years later, before the school opens in 2024, a 15-cent increase would be about $34, increasing current expense by about $50 a year.
Cape Henlopen school board members voted to hold the referendum Tuesday, March 20, 2018, when voters will be asked to approve using the current debt expense tax to pay for the $21 million in local construction costs, and also approve the current expense increase.
With voter approval, the 600-student middle school would be built on the grounds of Shields Elementary, which will be torn down when the new Shields is expected to open in 2021. The district owns the Lewes property, so there would be no cost to purchase land. At the high school, 20 classrooms would be built along Kings Highway with two hallways connecting to the existing high school. Four of the new classrooms are planned as Sussex Consortium rooms, for which the state pays 100 percent of the costs. School officials estimate the addition would house about 400 students.
The school cafeteria will be enlarged to accommodate more students.
Brian Bassett, director of facility operations and construction, said the district residents should approve the state money, since it may not be offered next year. “If we miss it, we'll be looking at a lot of modulars,” he said.
Alison May, spokesman for the Delaware Department of Education, said the state is only approving funding requests for districts with an immediate need to expand capacity. “The new middle school and expansion of the high school met the criteria,” she said.
Projects submitted by Capital, New Castle County Vo-Tech and Christiana were rejected because they did not address capacity issues, May said.
Cape Henlopen school board members will discuss and finalize the proposed tax-rate increase in January. Board President Andy Lewis said the district needs to move forward, especially with uncertain state finances looming in the future. He also said he expects other districts will move to the front of the line for their building requests in future years, bumping Cape to lower priority since the district has received state money for new and renovated elementaries and now for a new middle school and high school additions.
“The taxes going up are going to hurt people, but we have an opportunity this year to get something that we can't really wait three years to build,” said Lewis. “We were the only district to get money. We won't see the money next year. It'll be several cycles through before we get money again.”