So far, Sussex council mum on school assessment

School districts want county to adopt program to allow state to collect construction funds
January 5, 2024

The calls for Sussex County Council to adopt a voluntary school assessment to allocate money for schools are growing louder and louder.

During the Jan. 2 Sussex County Council meeting, Jamie Mack, an educational associate for capital projects with the Delaware Department of Education, explained how the program would work in the county.

Prior to that, during the public comment period, Oliver Gumbs, Cape Henlopen School District director of finance, urged council to adopt the assessment. He said all county school district officials are in favor. “It would have a significant impact on all districts experiencing growth in the county,” he said.

Gumbs said the Cape district has increased by 500 students over the past three years, which translates to one new school.

Last September, the Cape board unanimously passed a resolution urging the county to adopt a VSA to address the impact of residential development on school capacity.

So far, council has been silent on whether it plans to discuss the VSA.

“County council continues to gather information on the matter with the intent to deliberate on potential next steps, if any, at a future council meeting,” said Chip Guy, the county’s communications director.

Senate Bill 186 would give Sussex County the ability to enact a VSA. New Castle County and Kent County already have a similar program.

School capacity is key

Mack said developers of all major subdivisions (more than five houses) would be impacted by the assessment. The VSA is a fee paid by a developer to support school construction in the district where they are building.

He said developers have an option to pay per residential unit or donate land for use by the impacted school district. Mack said the vast majority of developers opt to pay the fee.

Funds can be used for major and minor capital projects, and can be used as a local match for construction projects.

Mack said the Department of Education is responsible for calculating the average cost per child for new public schools. Although the fee formula per unit can vary, the average around the state has been $5,000 per unit.

He said if the county enacts the VSA, officials can require certification of adequate school capacity for new residential developments.

Mack said municipalities in the county with schools in their limits can also enact the assessment.

The Cape and Indian River school districts are the most impacted when it comes to school capacity issues caused by dramatic residential growth.

How VSA works

A county or municipality identifies the need for VSA at filing of a major subdivision plan.

The developer then contacts the Department of Education providing the location of the project, a site plan, and the number and type of units.

If any school is at more than 85% capacity in the impacted district, VSA would be required. If a district confirms that adequate capacity is available, VSA is not required.

The Department of Education notifies a developer of the VSA requirement based on school capacity.

An agreement between the developer and the department is prepared, executed and recorded with the county to finalize the agreement.

Payments are made to the department.

When a district requires VSA funds, a spending plan is submitted by the district for review and approval by the department, Office of Management and Budget, controller general and co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Capital Improvements.

After approval, the funds are transferred to the district.

Mack said exclusions to the assessment include 55-plus communities and low-income housing projects. Apartments, townhomes and condominiums are included in the program using the same formula as single-family homes.

Council President Mike Vincent noted that most apartment projects are not in a major subdivision. “Council can work on that,” Mack responded.


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