By Terry Rogers
On Thursday, February 20, Milford School District held the first of several informational meetings to inform the public about the upcoming referendum, scheduled for March 26, 2014. The District has two items on the referendum ballot which will provide funding for a new 1,200 student middle school and cover increased operating costs in the district.
“The Milford Middle School was built in 1929,” said Superintendent, Dr. Phyllis Kohel. “In 1940, the elementary wing was added and in the 1960s the wing that holds the gym, Transportation and Child Nutrition Offices were added. A study performed by Studio Jaed found that it would cost $27 million in 2006 to renovate the school.”
Dr. Kohel said that one of the biggest problems with the school was that the heating system needed to be replaced, but in order to do that, the floors in the building would need to be completely removed.
“The heating system was installed in 1929, and the heat runs through iron piping in the concrete floors. As the pipe has aged, small pinholes have developed, which causes the steam to escape and create exceedingly hot areas on the floors,” Dr. Kohel explained. “The floors where the pinholes exist get so hot, we cannot let children walk near them. In addition, we had to close off four classrooms in the building due to these hot spots, as we were worried that the steam would cause asbestos fibers to enter the classrooms. All the pipes are wrapped in asbestos insulation and this caused us some concern. We learned later that because the steam would wet the asbestos, fibers would not be able to escape, but we still could not allow students to step on those floor hot spots.”
In 2011, French & Ryan assessed the building, returning a facility condition index of 0.78. State regulations say that a school with a facility condition index of 0.50 or more, it is no longer cost effective to maintain the building. This means that the state would provide no further funding to repair issues with the building. This led the district to file for a Certificate of Necessity with the state to build a new building.
In order to build a new Middle School, the district is seeking a tax increase of .9116 in Sussex County and .3226 in Kent County. The difference in increase between the two counties is based on the fact that Sussex County has not done real estate appraisals since the 1970s, while Kent County did one in the 1980s. Although it appears that Sussex County residents will pay more in taxes, Debbie Dufendach, financial secretary to the district’s Chief Financial Officer, said that the amount will be the same due to the differences in appraisal rates.
A group consisting of district officials, parents and other community members met after the French & Ryan assessment to decide whether the district should renovate or replace the Milford Middle School, and the decision was that it was more cost effective to replace the school than renovate it. The cost for building a new school is $44,619,900, an amount determined by the state, not the district. The state will absorb $31,676,600 of the cost, leaving the district responsible for $12,938.30.
“We know that this building means a lot to many people,” said Dr. Kohel. “However, the building will have to come down. We will talk to the architect about keeping the historic look of the building, those well-known pillars, but if it means sacrificing space needed by students to keep the façade, we will not, as much as we hate to lose that part of Milford’s history. We also want the school to fit well in the neighborhood, so the architects will be informed of the need to keep as much historical look as possible.” The first question on the ballot during the referendum will be requesting approval from the public to raise taxes in order to build a new school. The second question will be requesting approval to raise taxes for operating costs as well.
“As of this year, 12 of 19 districts are operating at a deficit,” Dr. Kohel explained. “The few who are not recently passed referendums to increase taxes for operating costs. More and more costs are being passed down to districts as federal and state dollars keep shrinking. Currently, teachers in our district are paid the second lowest salary in the state. Without this referendum, we will have to make some unpleasant cuts. We may have to cut sports, or require a ‘pay-to-play’ process. We will not be able to provide a salary increase when we negotiate teacher contracts next year. We will not be able to offer tuition reimbursements to staff who must take continuing education classes. “
Dr. Kohel explained that the new Middle School’s grade levels would be decided once the school was completed in three or four years. If the elementary schools were reaching capacity, the school could house grades five through seven. Eight grade would remain at the Milford Central Academy on the second floor, and the first floor could be used for a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) School, allowing the district to add new pathways for high school students.
Dr. Kohel also explained that any homeowner who is 65 years of age or older may qualify for the Senior School Property Tax Credit. For those who qualify, the state will pay 50 percent of the person’s tax bill up to $500. The credit can be applied for online, or seniors can stop in the District Office and they will help complete the form.
A Facility Advisory Group would be formed and work as a link between the community and the district. They will review all bids for the new school and determine the top three candidates. Those three candidates will then do a presentation of their designs to the school board, and the public will be invited to attend to make comment. Dr. Kohel said that the board wants the district and the community to work together to create a school that everyone will be proud of.
The district will hold community meetings on the referendum as follows:
Milford Rotary – February 24 at 5:45 PM at The Rookery North
Lulu M. Ross Elementary Community Meeting – February 27 at 6:30 PM
Evelyn I. Morris Early Childhood Center – March 3 at 6:30 PM
Slaughter Beach Fire Company – March 4 at 7:30 PM
Benjamin Banneker Elementary Community Meeting – March 10 at 6:30 PM
Ellendale Fire Company – March 11 at 7 PM
Mispillion Elementary Community Meeting – March 17 at 6:30 PM
Milford High School Community Meeting – March 20 at 6:30 PM