Caesar Rodney School District seeks to lease St. Thomas More

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MAGNOLIA — Caesar Rodney School District hopes to expand its footprint through an anticipated agreement to lease the former St. Thomas More facility as a new middle school.

The property would house students in grades six through eight, with a capacity of about 400 students. Realignment to include the new property is anticipated to begin next academic year.

“The opportunity presented itself last year when we heard that Thomas More was not going to be in operation [following the 2019-20 year],” Superintendent Kevin Fitzgerald said. “So we began to look at options as to what we could do.”

The agreement isn’t yet finalized, Dr. Fitzgerald said. The district will also hold a school board workshop March 2 at 6 p.m. via Zoom to discuss the realignment of middle school attendance with the community. Documents and Zoom information about the realignment are on Caesar Rodney’s homepage at crk12.org.

The leasing of St. Thomas More comes as the district faces high enrollment at two of its middle schools. Postlethwait and Fifer middle schools were both built with a capacity of 700 students. The district pushed that to 800, Dr. Fitzgerald said.

Those numbers continued to rise. Fifer currently has 900 students enrolled; Postlethwait is at 966.

“In both instances, they were both well over what we felt comfortable with and who we could actually provide educational services to,” he said. “Any time you’re looking at 35 kids in the classroom, that’s not an optimal classroom in which to learn.”

COVID-19 forcing smaller cohorts and hybrid learning actually lessened the strain this past year, giving the district time to work on negotiations, he said.

The district has been working with John Laznick of the Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research at the University of Delaware. Realigning of the district would see changes for a number of neighborhoods, covering the eastern region of the district.

“There will be a movement as far as students are concerned; there will be a movement as far as staff is concerned; there will be a movement as far as bus routes are concerned,” he said. “All of those things have to be worked out but, before we do that, we feel it’s important to go to our community to explain what we’re doing and where we see the future of Caesar Rodney headed.”

The district cannot purchase the property without a referendum, but, through epilogue language included in the bond bill last year, will be able to use impact fees to pay for the lease. Impact fees are received by districts from development in the county.

“It’s not currently money that would be taken out of the classroom or for any other project in the Caesar Rodney School District,” Dr. Fitzgerald said.

The district did succeed in receiving a certificate of necessity from the state that allows it to go out to referendum in the next two years (pending school board approval) to ask voters to support purchasing the building.

The hope is that the school will become a long-term part of the district. Eventually, Dr. Fitzgerald said they hope to get the building up to enroll 600 to 700 students, but that would need renovation and additions.

Mr. Laznick has provided the district with information showing where the growth is in the community, he said.

“The location of the Thomas More school out in the Magnolia area, along with the new Robinson Elementary School, is basically where our growth zone is and where we’ll have the greatest need moving forward,” he said. “It does benefit us in the short run because it alleviates the pressure that both Fifer and Postlethwait are currently feeling.”

St. Thomas More most recently served as a private Catholic school. It shuttered at the end of last academic year due to low enrollment. The building isn’t entirely move-in ready, however. Damage to the roof and gym must be repaired. The school lacks an operational kitchen, which the district will have to address, as well as bringing technology needs up to their standard.

“It’s in a good location for us; it has good bones,” he said, noting that this will enable the district to have an additional building at a much faster rate than constructing one, which would take years. “When you have the overcrowding needs that we have in our middle schools, this is a tremendous and great opportunity and great option for us.”