Rather than face a referendum, they'll face the General Assembly

Sussex Technical School District is proposing a new school.

Right now, it’s far from a sure thing. The first step before any school project is funded is to obtain a certificate of necessity from the Department of Education.

Next comes finding the money. Part of Delaware school funding comes from property taxes, but districts take different routes to money once they have a certificate.

Public school districts, like Indian River, hold a referendum among district residents to temporarily raise taxes. Indian River has already twice this year tried, and failed, to get funds for a new Sussex Central High School, which serves Georgetown and Millsboro students.

Vocational school districts, like Sussex Tech, don’t go to the voters. Once granted a certificate of necessity, the General Assembly decides whether or not local taxes are raised.

Georgetown-area Sen. Brian Pettyjohn (R) said, “From constituents, I’ve heard several comments about the school not being that old. Some sections were built not that long ago at an expense to taxpayers. So I’m hoping the board will really engage the public so they can understand their rationale.”

Why a new Sussex Tech?

Sussex Technical High School has over 1,200 high school students and 2,800 adult education students.

The main building was constructed in stages, as long ago as 1960 and as recently as 2008. There are more than 20 campus outbuildings, used mostly for technical areas and specialty classrooms, such as driver’s education, JROTC, band and chorus. Three buildings are at least 44 years old.

According to Public Information Officer Dan Shortridge, the district has spent about $14 million over the last few years on maintenance and improvements. That includes repairing roofs, renovations of career-technical areas, security installations and an HVAC overhaul, among other things.

Citing “escalating for maintenance costs,” the district hired architectural consultants ABHA and Buck Simpers Architect and Associates, both of Wilmington. They identified other needs: improved traffic circulation, security upgrades for student and staff safety and “improved, upgraded, and flexible space for technical area classrooms to accommodate industry-standard equipment and technologies in future years.”

The review put a price tag on three options:

Renovating the oldest parts of the complex and continuing patchwork repairs to the newer wings, at a cost of $190.2 million. Renovating the entire complex, $177.6 million. Building a new school, $150.5 million.

The Sussex Technical Board of Education endorsed the third option in August.

“Our engineering consultant has concluded that renovation is only a band-aid solution – paying good money for what is only a temporary fix,” Superintendent Stephen Guthrie said. “We are answerable to Sussex County taxpayers, and it is neither right nor ethical to continue to sink their money into an inefficient building with outdated and wasteful mechanical systems that are expensive to operate.”

In comparison

The General Assembly set Sussex Tech’s enrollment cap at 1,250 through the 2017-2018 school year. Since the cap expired, they have voluntarily limited enrollment to that.

Last year, Sussex Tech had 802 student apply for 280 ninth-grade spots, the most ever.

“Given the demonstrated need, we are working with state legislators to discuss growth options,” Shortridge said. “It is clear from the application trends that we are under-serving Sussex County students who want to pursue a career-technical education.”

Sussex Tech’s new $150.5 million school would accommodate 1,600 high school students, and 2,800 adult students. The adults attend at night, when high school isn’t in session, and the adults don’t all attend at the same time.

In contrast, at the time of their last referendum in May, the Indian River School District had almost 11,000 students. They were asking for a new Sussex Central High School, at the time home to 1,700 students, plus 12 additional classrooms at other schools. The total estimated cost was about $158.5 million. Voters denied the request.

“A career-technical high school has needs that differ from a conventional school,” Guthrie said. “Our students need to use industry-standard equipment such as dental radiography machines, cosmetology work stations, and HVAC-R vacuum pumps and tanks. You can’t just carry saws and routers into a trailer and start a carpentry lesson.”

Some adult classes at Sussex Tech involve specialized equipment, like those in welding, electrical and automotive studies.

The Department of Education issues decisions on which schools will receive certificates of necessity in late October. If approved, design for a new Sussex Tech would begin in July 2020 and construction about a year later.

For more, visit https://www.sussexvt.k12.de.us.