Lists priorities to improve financial transparency

With a referendum fast approaching, the Indian River School District’s Interim Superintendent, Mark Steele, is making every effort to engage the public.

“We have a perfect storm brewing,” he said. “From state budgets cuts to the exponential growth of our district, passing the referendum on Mar. 2 is of paramount importance.”

The IRSD is seeking additional funding to accommodate the unprecedented increase in student enrollment that’s occurred over the past seven years. The district is both the largest in Sussex County and growing faster than any other district in the county, at a rate of between 3 and 4 percent annually. It currently serves over 10,700 students, and enrollment is projected to exceed 12,000 by 2022.

“Additional funding is needed in order to continue providing the best possible educational services to our students,” Steele said. “Revenues are unable to keep up with the increasing costs of educating our children. Passage of this referendum is critical to the future of our schools.”

Should the referendum succeed, an increase of 49 cents per $100 of assessed property value would apply to all district property owners in order to raise over $7 million. The vast majority of the money would be used to hire more teachers and paraprofessionals and to purchase supplies. Smaller sums would be put towards school safety programs and student services.

Steele said the failure of the referendum could lead to understaffing, which would create larger class sizes and place a strain on resources. It could also potentially lead to significant staff reductions, cuts to safety programs and inadequate supplies. Five administrative contracts were not renewed for the 2017-2018 school year, on top of five administrative positions that are being purposefully left unfilled.

“The district could potentially lose 90 teachers, 20 paraprofessionals, 12 food service staff, 10 custodians and seven secretaries,” district officials reported.

Following last year’s discovery of former IRSD Chief Financial Officer Patrick Miller’s transgressions, Steele said district finances will now be readily available to the public, in an effort to be as transparent as possible. Miller resigned in June of 2016.

Steele became the IRSD’s Interim Superintendent after Susan Bunting left the position earlier this year to become the State Secretary of Education. He has risen through the ranks in the district over the course of his 36-year career, which he began as a teacher. Earlier this month, Steele wrote a “Letter to the Editor” in which he addressed the IRSD community.

“The past year has been exceptionally challenging for our district,” he wrote. “The financial issues that we face are beyond a critical stage with news that the state will be cutting funding from the state education budget. This referendum may be the single most important event in the history of our school district. I am asking everyone to please support this referendum because a negative result will be devastating to our schools, community and most importantly, our students.”

Steele then addressed the issue that may have caused the IRSD’s first referendum attempt to fail on Nov. 22, 2016, by just 30 votes: the state auditor’s special investigation report on the district. The Nov. 18, 2016 report identified many questionable transactions carried out by former CFO Miller and cited a major lack of internal controls in the IRSD to prevent and detect financial improprieties.

“We are working diligently to repair the relationship between our district and the community,” Steele said. He outlined five of his priorities:

Creating a Community Budget Oversight Committee to work closely with the Indian River School board and administration. The Delaware Code was updated in June 2010 to require all school districts establish a citizens’ budget oversight committee. Conducting internal audits, in addition to any state or federal audits, and posting them online for public review. Working with state auditors to make sure district financial policies and regulations meet or exceed state regulations. Developing a comprehensive strategic plan for the district with short- and long-term goals. Establishing better relationships with area businesses by involved them in planning and oversight in college and career programs.

Steele said emotions are high for those concerned with the referendum.

 “I am asking our community to put emotions aside,” he said, “And look at the tremendous impact on our students, district and community.”

 The district has added two more public meetings in the month of February that will provide information on the referendum and allow the public to ask questions. The updated meeting schedule is as follows:

February 15 – Lord Baltimore Elementary School, 6 p.m. February 16 – Georgetown Middle School, 6 p.m. February 23 – Indian River High School, 6 p.m. February 27 – Sussex Central High School, 6 p.m. (Prior to Board of Education meeting.)

For more information, contact Indian River’s Referendum Hotline at (302) 436-1079 or visit irsd.net/referendum.

Voting on Mar. 2 will be from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. Residents of the IRSD who are U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age are eligible to vote at any one of the following polling places: East Millsboro Elementary, Georgetown Elementary, Indian River High School, Long Neck Elementary, Lord Baltimore Elementary and Selbyville Middle School. Proof of identification or residency is required, but residents do not have to be property owners in order to vote.

Absentee voting is available through the Sussex County Department of Elections at 119 North Race Street in Georgetown. Absentee ballots are available by mail until noon on Feb. 24 and in person until noon on Mar. 1. For more information on absentee ballots, contact the Department of Elections at (302) 856-5367.