A School Referendum Can Benefit Everyone

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By Phillis Kohel, Superintendent of Milford School District

If you have not yet heard, the Milford School District is planning on a possible operations and construction referendum somewhere around late January or early February. Although we submitted a Certificate of Necessity to get DOE support for a referendum, we still have not received any word. However, that gives us time to talk to the public and get some ideas on whether we should build a new middle school or high school. The bottom line is, we must have a new building so that we can reorganize the district and make room at the elementary and middle levels for future growth. Subsequently, I’ve been researching the best way to approach having to ask our community to authorize the District to raise funds through the sale of bonds to finance a referendum. Recently, I came across an article that stated one of the best strategies used by a number of successful corporations in making any kind of change is to “Honor the Past, Confront the Present, and Embrace the Future.”

If we look to the past to determine the values and beliefs of our community, one can easily see that there has been a long fast commitment to education by the majority of the Milford community whether or not they still have students “in” school. Milford has been a town steeped in tradition. This can be evidenced by the revitalization that has occurred throughout the town including the downtown area and most recently, the shipyard area. Given this tradition, it is understandable that many people would still have a deep appreciation for a historic building like the old middle school. Unfortunately, maintaining and/or renovating that historic building is not an option for the district. The pipes are failing and cannot be replaced; the asbestos still within the building has to be removed; the electrical system is outdated; the brick and mortar is cracked and actually separated from the building; there is no air conditioning; fixtures are, literally, beginning to detach from the ceilings; the boilers are so old that we can no longer find parts; ADA compliance would force us to reconfigure every room, remove classroom door so that they opened into the room instead of out into the hallway; and on and on. We have had a number of conversations with Mayor Shupe regarding possibilities for the 1929 building and grounds, and will continue to investigate options, but the condition of the building and the cost of renovating far exceeds what the State would consider reasonable for supporting financially.

So, that takes us to “Confronting the Present.” First, we looked at our current situation. Four out of our six schools are considered over capacity according to the program capacity formula used by the State of Delaware. Our largest growth has been at the elementary level. Ross Elementary, in particular, is approximately 50 students over where they were last year. They now serve 627 students, and they are packed. Mispillion and Banneker are over capacity as well and school choice into any of those schools has been closed. Milford Central Academy is also over capacity at approximately 1034 students. We have had to add modular classrooms to Ross, Central Academy, and Milford High to accommodate growth. In addition, we need to gather input from the community. We will offer a number of public sessions that will be advertised and open to everyone. We have a districtwide parent group that has formulated, and I will be meeting with them on October 22. Once the Certificate is approved (being optimistic here!), we will do a telephone survey asking parents to vote on their choice of building a new 1400 student middle school or a new 1400 student high school. For those not having children currently attending school, we will post the same survey on our website and we will have a “Comments Box” in the lobby of the District Office where residents can leave ideas, concerns, or comments. I will also be available to speak at any local church or organization if requested; my office number and email address are available on the Milford School District website.

Next, we have heard the community’s concern over tearing down such a historic building as Milford Middle School. I can’t say that we have that figured out yet, but I can say that we have been working with Mayor Shupe and other members from the City of Milford to discuss possibilities for that building. Furthermore, Mr. Marvin Schelhouse, Board President, and I have met with several individual community members who we believe represent the feelings of many constituents, and we are looking at a number of possibilities. The bottom line is we need a building and there are several options open to us. If we purchase land and build a new middle school, then it would become a 5 through 8 school so that we could relieve some of the overcrowding at Ross, Mispillion, and Banneker. Moving 5th grade into the middle level would decrease the school enrollment at each elementary building by approximately 115 students. However, if we purchased land and built a high school, we would turn Milford Central Academy into a grade 5 – 6 school and the old high school would become a grade 7 – 8 school. That allows room for growth at every level. The new high school would then be built for 1400 students, and it would allow us to have a larger cafeteria, a separate chorus and band room, “perhaps” a little larger auditorium, and a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) wing. We would have to build practice athletic fields, but would have our competition turf fields for football and field hockey remain at their current location on 10th Street.

Finally, we need to “Embrace the Future.” Purchasing land and building a new school will address what we critically need now, and it will position us for the future. Furthermore, it presents benefits to the entire community. The first benefit comes from building a high-quality school system that will positively impact property values. We already have individuals move to Milford because of its low taxes and small town flavor, and many seek out Milford because of the excellent reputation that our schools have had for many years. With new people comes new businesses, all resulting in increased property values. The Board and I understand the financial concerns that weigh heavily on the minds of our community members, but we need everyone’s support from the City Council to the police department, fire department, public library, churches, etc. to help find a solution to the problems facing the Milford School District. Please help us in passing a much needed referendum.