The $87.4 million project was approved by district residents in 2015

Work to complete renovations on five Caesar Rodney district schools before the start of the new school year is rushing toward the finish line. However, the fate of a sixth project -- a new elementary school -- remains unsettled.

“We’ve run into some problems, so we’re at a crossroads on that,” district finance director Scott Kessel said of the as-yet-unnamed elementary school.

The result is that the new school, envisioned to serve 600 students, may need to be smaller, or the district will have to find more money to build the school as originally planned.

“That’s about where we’re at,” Kessel said. “We haven’t made a decision on where we’re going to go.”

Funding for school district projects         School   Funding requested* Cost to date McIlvaine   $3,162,600   $3,162,000 Fifer   $6,977,700   $4,677,022 Postlethwait $7,375,200   $4,814,680 Stokes   $3,381,400   $5,862,200 Star Hill   $2,370,400   $1,896,000 Brown   $717,200   0 Frear   $753,000   0 Simpson   $812,500   0 CRHS   $39,909,700   $13,414,757 Proposed school $21,953,000   $1,000,000        Total $87,412,700   $34,826,659         * This represents the total needed for construction; state government provides 79 percent, district 21 percent. Source: CR School District
   

Schools under the plan

In October 2015, district voters were asked to approve a tax increase to help pay for renovation projects such as upgrading aging school facilities, improving athletic spaces, increasing classroom capacity and upgrading learning spaces.

It also would pay for construction of the elementary school and to maintain operating expense funds in the face of cuts to federal and state subsidies.

In the referendum, district residents were asked to approve $27.8 million in increased school taxes as their share of the project’s expenses, with the Delaware government funding the remaining $59.1 million needed for the entire $86.9 million project.

The state legislature in 2018 added approximately $500,000 to the elementary school project, bringing the total to $87.4 million.

In all, improvements and upgrades were envisioned at seven facilities: Caesar Rodney High School, the Nellie Hughes Stokes and Star Hill elementary schools, the F. Neil Postlethwait and Fred Fifer III middle schools, the McIlvaine Early Childhood Center and the Charlton Program School.

Minor work planned for the Allen Frear, W. Reily Brown and W.B. Simpson elementary schools has yet to start. These schools already have undergone major renovations since 2010.

The Dover Air Force Base middle and George W. Welch elementary schools also were not included, as replacements for those schools will be funded by the federal government through the Department of Defense.

But work on these new schools has seen a delay because bids for the work came in over the projected costs of the new facilities.

“[The DoD] is going to have to go to Congress to get more funds,” Kessel said, adding it appears as if the planned fall 2018 start date could be pushed back four to six months.

Stokes over budget

Of the schools scheduled for renovation work, only the work at McIlvaine -- adding four classrooms -- has been completed.

At the Charlton school, two phases of renovations to the locker rooms and pool have been finished, as has work to bring bathrooms into ADA compliance, Kessel said.

The district has postponed until next year a third phase of the project because there were no construction companies available to do the work, he said.

“We’re on hold,” Kessel said. “When we went out on that project, we got no bidders. We have pushed that to next summer.”

Remaining projects include upgrades to security and mechanical systems, new flooring and roof work, he said.

Work at Fifer and Postlethwait is focused on installing new air conditioning and heating systems. This year’s work started in the classrooms, with new units planned for the administrative and gymnasium areas during the summer of 2019, Kessel said.

At Star Hill and Stokes, new HVAC units are also being installed, except that instead of a centralized system, each classroom is being fitted with new climate control systems.

“The systems at Star Hill and Stokes are different because of the design of the buildings,” Kessel said. “A lot of the stuff is behind the walls. It’s pretty important but you won’t see a lot of it.”

The plan includes installing new ceiling tiles throughout the classrooms and adding fresh paint, he said.

Except for the work at Stokes, project costs are staying under the initially planned budget, Starke said.

Work at that school is about $2.4 million over budget, he said.

“When the Certificate of Necessity was drawn up, the estimate was for $3.3 million,” Starke said. “When they went into the detailed stuff, when they put their heads up into the ceilings, they came up with a much more expensive figure.”

District officials plan to make up the difference with savings in other areas, he said.

A bigger CRHS

The majority of the construction work is taking place at the 51-year-old Caesar Rodney High School. Originally constructed as a two-wing building and opened in 1967, it since had undergone several major renovations, one in the early 1970s that added a third, “C wing” and again in 2004 which added a science and library wing.

The C Wing and library wing were supposed to be connected at the time, but the project was left incomplete when funding ran dry.

Renovations planned for 2019 will complete that 14-year-old plan, along with construction of a 30-room Freshman Academy, an area where incoming ninth-graders will spend a year before their promotion to sophomore status.

“Transitioning from eighth- to ninth grade is where kids have the most issues,” Kessel said. “This will separate them and allow them to get used to being in a high school.”

Pre-bids were taken on the project July 17, and will be opened Aug. 7; that’s when the district will learn if it will have enough cash for the 60,000 square foot building.

“We’re really anxious to see the bids,” Kessel said.

The connecting wing will include a locker room and weight room, along with a new entrance and ticket booth to the school stadium. It also means students won’t have to brave the elements when walking from one wing to the other.

Right now the inside of Rider Stadium is a muddy mess, with the running track being rebuilt and artificial turf being installed on the football field.

Kessel has a little more time to get the stadium in shape: all of CR’s early football contests will take place at other schools, with Homecoming scheduled to be the first home game.

Three options

The biggest question mark on CR’s construction schedule is the fate of the planned elementary school.

The district already has a site for the new facility, purchased in 2003: a parcel at the intersection of Briarbush and Banning roads near Magnolia.

The Delaware Department of Education approved a Certificate of Necessity for the school based on a plan to serve 600 pupils.

But Ken Starke, facility management director, said the project will need an influx of new cash if it is to be built as originally planned and approved.

“We handed out the bids, and when they came back they were over our budget,” he said. “So we’re re-evaluating our options.”

One of those options could include scaling back the size of the school, meaning it would cater to fewer elementary students.

“Our Certificate of Necessity said 600 students, but the way the funds are it probably won’t end that way,” Starke said.

Another choice could be holding a new referendum to ask district property owners for even more money.

“That’s the last thing we’d want to do,” he said.

Regardless, Starke’s office is developing alternatives for the district’s school board to consider.

“We’ll present the options and they’ll have to decide on what route to take,” Starke said.

That decision should come within the next two months, he said.

With the funding situation so unsettled, Starke also must deal with another problem: there’s so much construction work going on it’s difficult to find a contractor.

“It’s hard to say when we’ll be able to start construction,” he said. “It’s not a secret, everyone is busy. All of the building trades around here are very busy.”