** UPDATE ** -According to preliminary results, the Milford School District referendum to approve the construction of a new high school and fund an operations increase failed. 1,760 votes for (46%) to 2,074 votes against (54%).
By Terry Rogers
Milford School District residents will head to the polls on Tuesday, May 5, to vote for an increase in taxes in order to provide additional operating funding for Milford School District as well as to allow the district to build a new high school on property across from Redner’s on Route 113. A referendum held in March 2014, requesting an operation increase and to build a new middle school, failed with almost 55 percent of voters saying no to the operations increase and over 55 percent of voters against building a new middle school.
Response to the district’s requests have met with mixed comments, even from city council members. Former Councilman Dirk Gleysteen who represented the 2nd Ward until May 4 of this year, recently came out against the building referendum, although he supports the operations referendum. Mr. Gleysteen says that he believes the referendum will encourage “wasteful spending” on the part of the district and that the request for a new school is that “Cape and Woodbridge have done this, we’ll be left behind if we don’t.”
“We love spending other people’s money,” Councilman Gleysteen wrote in a letter to various newspapers in the area before the end of his term. “This is the cornerstone of Milford School District’s campaign for the approval of a 21 million dollar bond to fund the building of a new school.” Former Councilman Gleysteen, who did not run for reelection this year and whose seat on council is now held by Jamie Burk as of Monday, May 4, said that the district should lead rather than follow other districts.
Dr. Phyllis Kohel, Superintendent of Milford School District, disagrees with Councilman Gleysteen, stating that the district wants a new school because they need it.
“I am glad Cape and Woodbridge have new schools,” Dr. Kohel said. “They worked hard at presenting their cases to the public, and, luckily for them, both referendums passed. We have worked hard as well in getting as much information out as possible. We chose to build a high school because it addresses our needs across the entire district, not because some other school built one. We need to decrease the numbers of children in our elementary and middle grades. By building one building, we can do that.” Dr. Kohel says that the new school will not encourage wasteful spending. There will be additional costs for items such as utilities and supplies, but students will be provided technology and programs that will allow them to grow while also addressing the issues of overcrowding aross the district.
Gleysteen said that he does believe the district’s request for an increase in operational funding is warranted, but believes that the request for a new school is not. In his opinion, the former middle school was closed as a “knee-jerk reaction to make an overcrowding issue in other schools in order to force approval of this referendum.”
“LD Caulk next door to the Middle School is still using a building older than the Middle School for offices and manufacturing. Old buildings have limitations, but they can be easily worked around. The University of Delaware has done this with substantially older buildings and so can we,” Councilman Gleysteen wrote. “Listing the Middle School on the list of historic places is a fine idea, but one that has a very slim chance of being sold to a developer and placed back on the tax rolls. When asked at a City Council presentation what success this plan has had elsewhere, in the state or on Delmarva, the school representative could not provide any examples.”
Dr. Kohel said that the district began discussing closure of the school in 2006 when it was determined that renovations would cost $26 million. Talks continued as more problems surfaced in the school including the failure of the heating system twice in the middle of the winter, a ceiling fan falling to the gym floor while students were in class and plaster panels on the front of the building began falling off.
“The boilers in the building were so old, there wasn’t quick access to getting parts,” Dr. Kohel explained. “When steam pipes burst in the floors so that we had to permanently close four classrooms out of fear of airborne asbestos, it was clear something had to be done. When the second assessment came in that renovations would cost $36 million along with learning that the state would not pay for those renovations, that is what pushed the district to permanently close the school.”
Councilman Skip Pikus, who says that he is in full support of the referendum, said that he believes the referendum has a 60 percent chance of passing, but that he did have some reservations about why the district was asking for a new school. He also said that people are questioning why Milford cannot get state funding to tear down the old school as they have in other districts, pointing to a recent article in the Delaware State News about the demolition of Dover High School using state funding.
“I am a strong supporter of education, and I feel the Buccaneer Tomorrow group has done an excellent job about getting the facts out,” Councilman Pikus, who also represents Ward 2 where the old middle school is located, said. “A lot of people are wondering why the job of promoting the referendum has fallen to the parents. Where has the superintendent been? Where has the school board been? When Chuck Moses and Bob Smith got referendums passed, they were out beating the streets and getting information to the public.”
Councilman Pikus said that he had recently spoken to Chuck Moses, who was Superintendent of Milford School District for many years and that Mr. Moses expressed to him that the old middle school building had many problems that would make it difficult for use as a school any longer. Councilman Pikus and Councilman Gleysteen both asked what it would cost for a private foundation or corporation to renovate the old middle school.
“We need to use the building,” wrote Councilman Gleysteen. “We don’t need to spend $30 million to bring it up to a like-new building. There is a number substantially lower than that (that the School Board has not disclosed) at which we will achieve the grade required by the state, where the state will again participate in the maintenance of the school. Then look at our needs and add on as required, there is plenty of space there.”
According to the district, the old middle school was closed when the State of Delaware, based on the Facility Condition Index (FCI), announced that they would no longer fund maintenance or repairs to the old building, which was built in 1929.
“The building must achieve a score of .5 or lower on the FCI scale,” Dr. Kohel said. “The old middle school scored a .78, well above the needed score to get state funding. Once that score was determined, the state pulled any funding for maintenance or repairs to the building unless the district could bring it up to state standards. The estimated cost to bring the school to the minimum standards required by the state was $36 million, all of which would have to be paid out of local funds.” In order to build a new school, the Department of Education requires districts to go to referendum asking residents to increase taxes to cover the district’s 30 percent share in the cost of building the new school. The district cost to build the new school is estimated just under $21 million, lower than the estimated cost to renovate the old middle school and bring it up to the minimum standards required by the state.
One concern expressed by citizens is that the district requested a new middle school referendum just over a year ago, yet now has changed that to a need for a high school Superintendent Phyllis Kohel explained that, over the course of a year, overcrowding had created an issue at the elementary as well as the middle school level.
“As of right now, we could use an additional elementary and middle school,” Dr. Kohel explained. “However, by restructuring the district and utilizing our buildings more effectively, we can go out for a construction loan for just one building which ultimately saves the taxpayers and district money.” In addition, Dr. Kohel says that, in the past few weeks, the district has met with a surveyor about subdividing the middle school property.
School administrators say that the district is over capacity by approximately 500 students district-wide and that building a new middle school or renovating the old building would not sustain growth or solve overcrowding on all levels. Building a new high school would resolve overcrowding and eliminate the need to build another school for up to 20 years as grades will be reconfigured to meet enrollment. The new school would house grades 9 through 12 while the current high school would become Milford Junior High, housing grades 7 and 8. Grades 5 and 6 would attend Milford Central Academy while the three elementary schools would house grades 1 through 4. Morris would continue to serve Pre-K and Kindergarten students. The new configuration would relieve overcrowding in the elementary schools by removing Grade 5 as well as overcrowding at Milford Central Academy as two grades would shift into the old high school.
According to Dr. Kohel, the athletic complex portion of the land will remain intact and be leased to the City of Milford to maintain an open space for the community. The front portion where the building sits will be appraised and offered to state agencies first, then the local government and finally to the public. The hope is that the district can sell the property and put it back on the tax rolls for the city. In addition, the district will offer to assist any buyer with placing the building on the National Registry for Historical Buildings so that the new owner can receive the 20 to 30 percent tax break that comes with historical properties.
Not all council members are against the referendum and feel that the district has answered questions thoroughly regarding the need for the referendum. Councilman Garrett Grier says that he is 100 percent in favor of the referendum.
“I feel it is crucial for the referendum to pass for most importantly the future of our children,” Councilman Grier said. “The school district is in desperate need of both a new school facility as well as operating income to continue to improve and provide a high quality education for our kids.” Councilman Grier said that one of the most important aspects of a community is the school system and that he believes that passing the referendum will be a huge step toward the city’s commitment to both youth in the community and the city as a whole.
There have been questions why the district chose to purchase property across from Redner’s rather than land that is available directly across from the current high school next to Sunnybrae Mansion. Dr. Kohel explained that the building site is part of the construction loan so that the state plays a part in accepting or denying appraisal on any land the district looked at for the new school.
“The state will not allow us to pay one penny above the appraised value,” Dr. Kohel said. “We tried to negotiate the cost, but the landowner was set at one price. After a number of conversations, we knew that we could not settle on that land, so we were forced to look elsewhere.” Dr. Kohel explained that the current athletic fields will continue to be used for official games, but that practice fields will be built at the new high school. This will eliminate the need for students to be transported from the new high school to the old high school for practice. Because most students find their own transportation to games, there should be no need for additional transportation costs to and from the old high school as practices will be held at the new location.
There has also been some concern that Milford School District is “top-heavy” with administrators. Dr. Kohel explained that all administrative positions are earned through student enrollment numbers and that the district does not hire positions they have not earned. “We do not have one person who we pay 100 percent local funding for because we did not earn the position,” Dr. Kohel explained. “As a cut back due to operating shortfalls, we have not filled one secretarial position and one custodial position. However, that savings is minimal for the district since the state pays 70 percent of all salaries while the district pays only 30 percent. This means that the district does not save significant amounts by eliminating positions.”
In addition to Councilman Grier, Mayor Bryan Shupe has also been outspoken in his support of the referendum. Mayor Shupe says that when he speaks to companies about locating in the Milford area, he is always asked about the school system.
“Over the past several months, I have worked with Superintendent Kohel, the Milford School Board and the Buccaneer Tomorrow parent group as we created a long-term vision for the future of Milford education and the Milford community,” Mayor Shupe said. “This plan will assist with short-term challenges in our district, including overcrowding of classrooms in all of our schools as well as address long-term opportunities of strengthening the quality and competitiveness of our education system.” Mayor Shupe said that the new school would allow for expanded curriculum as an investment in future leadership and economic development.
One outcome should the referendum for the new school pass would be the implementation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs in the new school. When asked why the district would add programs already offered by the local technical school districts, Dr. Kohel explained that the district hopes that offering programs that provide students who do not want to attend a college with certification in a trade would keep students in Milford.
“Although most of our students leave high school and go straight to a two or four-year college, we want to have a certification program that would allow those who may not be going to college, the ability to be certified in a field so that they can leave school and have a better chance of being employed,” Dr. Kohel explained. When students use School Choice to attend another district or the technical schools, funding from the state is taken from the home district and transferred to the district where the student is attending, leading to a large loss in funding for Milford.
Mayor Shupe believes that offering STEM programs at the high school may make a difference in whether businesses choose to open or relocate to Milford. “The performance of our local school system and its vision for the future will be a guiding principle when businesses decide to expand or open in Milford and families decide to raise their children or retire in our community,” Mayor Shupe said. “My family and I will be making the investment in our education system and we are excited to join our community as we determine the future of Milford together.”
Anyone who is over the age of 18 and a resident of Milford School District may vote in the referendum, even if their mailing address is not in Milford. Polls are open from 10 AM until 8 PM at Benjamin Banneker, Lulu M. Ross, Evelyn I. Morris and Mispillion Elementary Schools. Voters are asked to bring proof of identity and address and that they be citizens of the United States and the state of Delaware. Citizens do not have to be registered to vote in state or federal elections to vote in the referendum nor do they have to be a property owner.