MILFORD — The Milford School District is gearing up for a capital referendum that, if passed, would mean the reestablishment of Milford Middle School on Lakeview Avenue to the district’s roster of buildings.
Voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 27 at Benjamin Banneker and Lulu M. Ross elementary schools, Milford High School or Morris Early Childhood Center.
Eligible voters must be residents of Milford School District who are U.S. citizens at least age 18. You do not need to be a registered voter to cast a vote in the referendum.
The estimated cost of the project is $57.3 million — the local share of the total cost is about $14.89 million and, if approved, the district will leverage the state share of about $42.4 million.
Sara Croce, the district’s chief financial officer, said that because of the district’s cautious spending, the project would only impact the debt service component of Milford residents’ overall tax rate.
“What we’re really asking for is permission to sell that 20-year bond,” she said.
Due to a current bond obligation expiring in 2023, Dr. Croce said Milford School District taxpayers will see a decrease in the debt service tax component of their public school taxes in the first year following approval of the referendum.
“There will be another slight decrease, which will be our sixth year decreasing tax rates in Milford,” she said.
The debt service tax will increase in years two and three of the project, if it is approved, but then decline again over the remaining 20-year bond schedule. The increase in the second year, Dr. Croce said, can be attributed to the bulk of construction underway then.
With the upcoming property tax reassessment for all Delaware counties in mind, Milford School District is spread across both Kent and Sussex counties. Dr. Croce said she doesn’t anticipate the district “taking any additional percentage of revenue from that process.”
“Our tax rate wouldn’t remain the same. We’ll have to lower it as property values go up, so it’s not going to be a huge revenue win for the district,” she said. “We’ll have to kind of neutralize that with tax rate changes as that process continues.”
All three of the state’s counties are about to undergo a comprehensive property reassessment that must be completed by 2024, necessitated by a successful lawsuit against the counties.
Dr. Croce noted there are ways for senior citizens and veterans living in Milford to get a break from taxes. That information can be found at milfordschool.org/SeniorPropertyTaxRelief.
The goal behind the referendum is to alleviate pressure of growing enrollment in all of the district’s schools, as its website states, but most prominently experienced at Milford Central Academy and its secondary campus by adding another facility.
The proposed Milford Middle School would serve roughly 1,000 fifth and sixth grade students.
Students in the Milford School District are currently served by six schools: Morris Early Childhood Center, three elementary schools (Benjamin Banneker, Lulu M. Ross and Mispillion), one middle school (Milford Central Academy and its secondary campus) and one high school (Milford High School).
In the new configuration — as proposed in the district’s certificate of necessity application that received approval from the Department of Education in November 2020 — sixth grade would be moved from Milford Central Academy back to Milford Middle School. Prior to the closure of Milford Middle School in 2013, Milford Central Academy only offered grades seventh and eighth.
Fifth-graders would be moved from the three elementary schools to the new Milford Middle School.
The goal of the new configuration would be merging all elementary schools earlier and in a smaller environment while also creating “space and flexibility” for future growth, the district’s website states. The reconfiguration would also “keep the educational needs of the students at the forefront,” according to the website.
Dr. Croce said the district was one of the few in Delaware to experience growth through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We don’t have that many students that dropped off because of COVID,” she said. “We’re still seeing a growth and right now, as of (Sept. 1), we’re up over 4,400 students, which is the most we’ve ever had enrollment in Milford.”
Dr. Croce said from data supplied by the city of Milford that takes into account new construction, the school district could see as many as 4,600 more students than its current enrollment by 2024.
She noted all of the district’s schools are currently “well over” 85% of program capacity. She said the Department of Education recommends districts look for extra space when they reach that level of capacity.
“We’ve really been looking at this process for a good three years now,” Dr. Croce said. “Going through with the community engagement and having those meetings and kind of developing a plan, but we’re really to a point now where it’s getting to be critical for space.”
Superintendent Kevin Dickerson also called it critical to support the district’s enrollment growth, writing in an email Friday that the school district must provide “space and educational resources needed to best serve our students, families and community.”
“We are very grateful for our community’s longstanding support of our schools and for the six schools we have in operation,” Dr. Dickerson said. “Currently we have our highest enrollment ever, and our enrollment will continue to rapidly increase with the tremendous housing growth already underway and planned for within our district.”
In conceptual plans, the historic section of Milford Middle School will be renovated and restored as the “centerpiece of the school,” the district’s website reads. New wings would be added to the school and no additional property would need to be purchased.
Renovating the old building versus tearing it down to create a new school falls in line with community requests, Dr. Croce said, and is more cost-effective.
Dr. Dickerson agreed, writing that preserving the “historic centerpiece” of Milford Middle School was a “common request from our community during our community meetings.”
“We looked at both options, but overwhelmingly the community had a tie to that structure and the history behind that building,” Dr. Croce said. “We looked at both options — whether it be to completely demolish the old building and build a new school or renovate that historic structure that the community loves so much and bring it back to life with a new modern facility around it. It was actually less costly to do the renovation.”
The former Milford Middle School is housed in a building that opened in 1929. The building also has a historical marker honoring the “Milford 11” — one of the first attempts to integrate students in Delaware in 1954.
“We have a prideful community and we, as a district, are proud of the students, families, staff and community members who have been a vital part of the school’s history,” Dr. Dickerson wrote.