A steady stream of voters approved Cape Henlopen School District's latest referendum March 20 by a vote of 2,372-864.
“I'm very relieved it passed,” said board President Andy Lewis after the results were read. “It was a critical need for the school district, and I am very happy it passed.”
With voter approval now secured, the district can move forward with a $55 million project, with about $34 million in state funds. A third middle school will be built once Shields elementary students move into the renovated Lewes School building, and the old Shields Elementary is torn down. The new 600-student middle school will be built on the grounds of Shields Elementary.
Director of Capital Projects Brian Bassett said he hopes to have the new middle school ready for fall 2021.
“The middle school will sit quiet for a couple of years until we get Shields moved into their facility,” he said.
Planning and design for a 20-room addition to Cape High and improvements to the school cafeteria will begin sooner in July, he said.
Superintendent Robert Fulton said once the new middle school and renovations to the high school are complete, all Cape students will be attending state-of-the-art schools built after 2003. “There will be a safer, nicer learning environment for all of our kids,” he said.
Voters agreed to let the district use money already approved in previous building referendums to build the new middle school and high school additions – construction needed to handle increasing student enrollment, officials say.
About $21 million in debt service tax was left over from elementary school building referendums passed in 2014 and 2016. Low interest rates and construction savings have kept costs down, resulting in the $21 million savings, officials say.
Voters also approved a permanent operating expense tax increase to pay for staff and maintenance at the new middle school. The increase will be split into two increments and will eventually be about $50 a year for the average homeowner of a $250,000 home assessed at $22,000.
Officials say on average, taxpayers will see a 5-cent increase in 2019, or about $12 more a year; and an additional 15-cent increase in 2022 for about $35 a year more.
Jessica Tyndall, school board vice president, thanked voters for approving the referendum.
“I have been nervous all day, and I am ecstatic to live in a community that understands our district's growth needs,” she said. “It's an exciting and wonderful time for the kids in our district.”
Ken McDowell, director of Sussex County Elections, said there was a steady stream of voters throughout the day at the Cape High polling site despite poor weather. Voters there approved the referendum by 1,455 votes to 470, more than a two-to-one margin.
Results were also favorable at Rehoboth Elementary with 505 in favor and 117 against, and at Mariner Middle 393-262. There were 19 absentee ballots in favor and 15 against.
In 2016, Cape Henlopen voters turned out in support of a referendum to build two new elementaries and renovate two others, approving it 2,947-1,031.
In 2014, voter turnout for a referendum to approve building Love Creek Elementary School on Route 24 was significantly higher, with 3,597 for and 2,410 against.