Milford School District held the first of several referendum meetings to provide information to residents about the upcoming referendum planned for October 27. This referendum will allow the district to borrow funds to pay for renovations to the original portion of the former Milford Middle School, demolish wings that were added over the years and construct newer wings that will house a 1,000-student 5th and 6th grade school.
“Three years ago, we began discussing what should happen to the Middle School property,” Dr. Kevin Dickerson, Superintendent, said. “It is a property we own, and the backside of the property is utilized by families and the community. The front part of the property is the school. Three years ago, we created a committee made up of district staff, board members, educators and community members. This committee was led by Bill Strickland, and we had a lot of community input. What was decided because that was the overwhelming opinion of the public who spoke at the meetings, that this should remain a school.”
Dr. Dickerson explained that, although there was an evaluation done when the school closed permanently in 2013, the committee felt it was better to start completely from scratch. TetraTech, an engineering firm, was hired to reevaluate the building and a feasibility study was completed. TetraTech determined that, although the newer wings of the building were not salvageable, the older, historic portion could be revitalized. A Certificate of Necessity was approved by the Department of Education in the fall of 2020, but the district felt that with the pandemic continuing, it was best to hold off on a referendum until 2021.
“We followed a few principles that were very dear to our committee,” Dr. Dickerson said. “First and foremost, we wanted to keep the educational needs of our children in the forefront. We had to consider the findings and recommendations from all the site evaluations, and we made sure that we examined all district facilities. We know we need to not focus on need right now, but to do what is best for growth as well.”
Dr. Dickerson explained that revitalizing the 1929 portion of the building will allow the school to retain the large gymnasium and auditorium which could be used by the community. He stated that a totally new construction would not allow for amenities like that. The entire building will need to be gutted, reconfigured and all systems brought to code and modernized.
“A few of us had a chance to go to Milton Elementary where they have recently refurbished a school similar to this one,” Dr. Dickerson said. “We saw that this could be done and create a school that will meet the needs of our students well into the future. Although the exterior of the historic part would remain the same, the interior would look much different.”
Dr. Sara Croce, Chief Financial Officer, explained enrollment and cost estimates to those in attendance. Dr. Croce stated that all schools in the district were over the 85 percent capacity limit set by the Department of Education. She said that when schools reach that threshold, DOE suggests that the district begin looking for ways to expand.
“Milford Central Academy was built for 1,000 and has a program capacity for 850 students, but we have 1,122 enrolled,” Dr. Croce said. “The high school has 1,183 students. We are looking at a projected enrollment of 4,897 in the entire district by 2024. During our committee meetings, we had presentations by the city who described what we are seeing as “boom growth.” This is significant growth all at once and they expect that to continue.”
The estimate to build the school based on formulas used by DOE is $57,270,453. The state will pay $42,380,185 while the district is required to pay $14,890,318. The referendum will allow the district to go out and seek bonds for $14,890,318, or in other words borrow funds for their share of the construction. Approving the referendum actually does not impact property taxes immediately as the school will gradually get to the $14.8 million. Tax rates are set by the district each year and consist of four separate components.
“The proposed project only impacts the debt service components,” Dr. Croce said. “The first year, because we have one bond obligation expiring in 2023, even if the referendum is approved, our debt service rate will go down slightly. The second year will see the most increase with the third year having another small increase. In years four and five, the debt service will again go back down.”
Dr. Croce also explained that school tax is based on the assessed value of your home, not the market value. Assessments in Kent County were last completed in 1986 and in 1974 in Sussex County. Because Milford is split between the two counties, the state uses a formula to determine school tax rates to ensure that a house in Kent County pays the same tax as the exact same house in Sussex County. Milford School District has lowered school taxes for the past five years.
“The average home in Milford School District is assessed around $57,934 in Kent and $20,500 in Sussex,” Dr. Croce said. “For a home assessed at that value, the debt service portion of your taxes will go down about $6.11 in year one. In year two, your annual tax will increase by $58.90. The third year, it will increase by $7.33. In year five, it will drop by $6.94 and in year five it will drop by $6.72.”
One question asked was how the district arrived at the $57.2 million cost estimate. Dr. Croce explained this was a formula used by the state and that the school could not cost more than that. She also explained that if the referendum were approved, there would be a bidding process which is also guided by state regulation. The public would be welcome to attend the bid openings.
There was a question about impact fees for new home construction and Dr. Croce explained that the district received impact fees from Kent County but not for Sussex. Those fees were applied directly to debt service. In other words, if the state says that the district must pay $1 million on year toward debt service, property taxes are determined in order to cover that $1 million. If the district receives $100,000 in impact fees and applies them to debt service, instead of having to issue a tax rate to cover $1 million, the tax rate only has to cover $900,000 which helps to lower that portion of the tax rate slightly.
“Most of our growth is in the southern end of our district, in Sussex,” Dr. Dickerson said. “When we determined the best way to go, we took this growth into consideration.”
Others questioned whether the new building would be constructed for easy expansion. It was pointed out that the Milford Central Academy was not constructed so that it could be expanded as the district grew and audience members felt that any construction on the Lakeview Property needed to include easy expansion methods. Dr. Dickerson explained that the plan was to create a building that would serve the district well for 15 to 20 years down the road, so they did not have to come back to the public again for some time.
“We can also tell you that preserving the older portion of the building is less costly than demolishing it and building all new,” Dr. Dickerson said. “This was another thing we heard overwhelmingly from the public, that they wanted that old building to stay. It is historic and it is located on a gateway into Milford. There is a site that honors the Milford 11, the first attempt at integrating schools in Delaware in 1954, so there are many reasons to save that portion of the building.”
The referendum will be held October 27 from 7 AM until 8 PM. Any Milford resident who is 18 years or older may vote and you do not need to be a property owner to vote in the referendum. Voters must reside within the boundaries of the district, however and you must be a United States citizen and provide identification. You also do not need to be registered to vote by the city or state.
Polling places will be at Benjamin Banneker Elementary, Lulu M. Ross Elementary, Milford High School and Morris Early Childhood Center.
Dr. Croce stated that anyone who would like to know their exact tax burden should the referendum pass can either look up their assessed value on the Kent or Sussex County website or give her a call at 302-422-1600 and she will compute it for them. The presentation is available on the Milford School District Website under the “Referendum” tab. Another referendum meeting was held on August 19 at Mispillion Elementary, on August 20 at Milford Central Academy and on August 23 at the Milford High School Auditorium. That meeting was also available in a virtual format.
The next meeting is planned for August 24 at Morris Early Childhood Center. Another will be held August 25 at Mispillion Elementary and again on September 1 at Benjamin Banneker. All meetings begin at 6:30 PM and will last about an hour. Masks are encouraged but not required as there are no students in the building at this time.
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