So many people came out to vote in the Indian River School District referendum on Thursday, March 2, that the polling machines at Lord Baltimore Elementary School in Ocean View "filled up" and paper ballots had to be used.
According to district officials, the referendum had the greatest turnout in IRSD history, with 12,389 people voting. Prior to that, a May 2000 referendum held the record with 8,437 voters.
“Before the polls opened, we had people waiting to vote this morning,” said IRSD Interim Superintendent Mark Steele.
The referendum asked citizens within the IRSD to vote on a property tax increase of 49 cents per $100 assessed value to cover the cost of significant student enrollment growth. In today’s lackluster economy, many weren’t keen on the prospect, despite the fact that even with the increase the IRSD would continue to have the lowest property tax rate in the county. The majority of voters, however, warmed up to the district’s request.
Unofficial results were announced on Friday, March 3, by the Department of Elections: 7,091 people voted for the referendum, as opposed to 5,298, or 43 percent, against.
“I am so grateful to the community,” said Steele.
After longtime IRSD Superintendent Susan Bunting became Secretary of the Delaware Department of Education in January, then-Assistant Superintendent Steele took over. He claimed to have never used Facebook before, but his live broadcasts may have played a significant role in the referendum. One of the videos, in which Steele answered questions from the public, had over 14,000 views.
“I’ve got to be honest, I think [Facebook] probably was one of the most beneficial things I was encouraged to do,” Steele said.
The referendum was the IRSD’s second attempt this school year, after a Nov. 2016 referendum drew about 6,600 voters and failed by just 30 votes. That vote was undoubtedly influenced by a special investigation report released by the Delaware Office of the Auditor of Accounts about a week before, which found the district lacked formal financial policies and procedures. Since the IRSD was therefore unable to prevent or detect financial improprieties, according to the report, former Chief Financial Officer Patrick Miller was able to get away with multiple inappropriate or questionable sales and purchases.
In the months in between votes, the IRSD forged ahead, scrambling to do everything they could to address the issues raised in the auditor’s report. A few days before the March 2 referendum, the state auditor, R. Thomas Wagner, released a follow-up report detailing the IRSD’s efforts to ameliorate his concerns.
"AOA commends the district's efforts in developing policies and procedures addressing control issues in such a short amount of time," Wagner wrote.
Steele credited district parents for their support.
“We had a group of parents, we call them our ambassadors, who have worked with us since the middle of January, and I could talk about those people all night long,” he said. “They’ve just done an incredible job, working social media and giving me tips and just being supportive. They didn’t quit. They went up until eight o’clock tonight - we saw them in automobiles passing out literature.”
Teachers and other district employees rejoiced on social media Thursday night upon seeing the results.
“Thank you to my IRSD family and community!” said one teacher.
“Tonight is an absolute win for our children!” said another.
IRSD teachers had good reason to be thankful – the referendum likely saved about 130 jobs within the district and prevented larger class sizes and limited materials. The IRSD is the largest district in the county and is growing at faster rate than any other district in the county.
“I’ll be at work at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. Even though this passed we’re still going to have to [reduce] our budget, and we’ll start to work on that,” said Steele, “We’re gonna create … probably the most transparent school district of anyone in the state. I just want to provide enough layers of oversight that everybody’s going to be able to trust us.”