Public Asks School District to Develop Strategic Plan

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By Terry Rogers

At a workshop held by the Milford School District on June 17, 2015, one concern expressed by many members of the public in attendance was what appeared to be the lack of a strategic plan in the district. Many pointed to that as a reason two referendums, one held in March 2014 for operations and a new Middle School and one held in May 2015 for operations and a new High School, were defeated.

“There was never an explanation why the thinking of the board shifted so radically,” said Paul Hayes, who taught in Laurel for 30 years although he lives in Milford. “Two years ago, you asked for a new Middle School, then you asked for a new High School. You condensed two referendums into one for the second one. It is easy for someone like me to see that you guys are all over the board.”

Danny Vezmar, one of the leaders of the parent group, Buccaneer Tomorrow, explained that the two referendums were combined because, when they were split in 2014, the school referendum almost passed. The district did not have the funds to build the school if the operations referendum did not pass in 2015, so the decision was made to combine them.

Lester Guyer asked the district if they had a future plan, stating that what the public wanted was an idea of where the district planned to be in five or ten years. Chief Financial Officer for the district, Sara Croce, said that the district did have a strategic plan in place. Many members of the audience said that they were unclear on what that plan was and how the district planned to implement it.

“We worked for a year on a plan and the community said no,” Ms. Croce said. “We came up with another plan and the community said no. Every plan we have is contingent on community support, so I don’t want you to get the impression that we don’t have a plan, because that is absolutely not the case. We have a strategic vision on where we are now and the five-year plan with budget cuts that will help us just stay alive. Then we have a plan contingent upon the passage of a referendum in the fall.” Ms. Croce said that she wanted to make it clear that the district did have a vision for where they wanted to be in ten years, which included reducing the overcrowding in the schools, the return of programs that had been cut and to be operating without a deficit.

Members of the audience explained that they felt that the fact that the district had built two new schools in the past ten years, Milford Central Academy and Mispillion Elementary, and were now asking for another new school indicated that the district was not sure where they were heading in the future. Jennifer Cinelli-Miller, a member of the Citizens Budget Oversight Board for the district, said that audience members were correct.

“You may have a strategic plan here in the district office, but it is not out there for the public to see,” she said. “In all the presentations about the referendum, there was no discussion of a strategic plan for where the district wanted to be in the future.” Yvette Dennehy, who will take over as seat on the school board vacated by Mark Schanne in July, said that there was a strategic plan presented at the meetings, but few members of the public were there to see it. Another member of the audience said that she recalled hearing about childcare at the high school, programs they would implement and how the new high school would reduce overcrowding at all schools in the district, but Ms. Cinelli-Miller pointed out that those were “wish lists, not plans.”

Several audience members asked why current schools could not be expanded to relieve overcrowding, such as building a wing on Milford Central Academy or the current high school. Dr. Kohel explained that she had reviewed the possibility with DNREC and other state officials who determined that there was not enough permeable surface on the land owned by the district to add on to those schools. She said that DNREC indicated that run-off would be significant if any additional buildings were placed on the property. The only option at that location was to eliminate the BMX park and possibly use some of that land, but she was unsure whether the space was large enough for expansion.

Kevin Marshall, Jr., who ran for school board in 2013 and was defeated by Hunter Emory, asked whether the district could add floors to any of the schools in the district.

“We have looked at that and it is not possible,” Dr. Kohel explained. “First, the building walls are not structurally able to hold the weight of additional floors, so that would take considerable reconstruction. In addition, there is a significant amount of green energy on the roof of the old middle school and the high school, like almost every school built during that era, has everything on the roof. This makes it cost-prohibitive to add on to those buildings.”

Mr. Marshall suggested that the district develop a plan going forward so that when schools are built in the future, they can be expanded easily. Ms. Dennehy said that the plan was to design the new high school in such a way that it could be easily expanded. Ms. Croce said that almost all new schools today were being built with expansion in mind as the recently built Dover High School indicated.

There was no decision by the board whether they would develop a strategic plan or if they would release the plan they currently have to the public.