By Kim Hoey
Special to Delaware Business Times
In January, Appoquinimink School District in southern New Castle County kicked off a building spree. The district broke ground on both a middle school and high school and expects to complete a new elementary school in 2019. It has plans to renovate two older schools as well.
That might not be enough. Student population in the district is exploding. Between September and December 2017, Appoquinimink grew by more than 100 students.
“There’s not a pocket of growth. We are seeing it across the board,” Superintendent Matthew Burrows said. He added he’s concerned about what could happen when the U.S. 301 bypass is completed around Middletown. With faster access to areas such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., more people could decide to commute from Middletown.
Growing pains are nothing new in Middletown, where the population jumped from less than 5,000 to nearly 20,000 between 1990 and 2014, the fastest rate in Delaware. Appoquinimink is the third- largest district in the state, with 11,000 students.
While most districts in Delaware grow about 1 percent per year, Appoquinimink averages 3.47 percent, said Michelle Wall, a member of the school board and a parent of two Appoquinimink students. “That’s huge,” she said.
The district is trying to keep class size low, but space is running out. Several early education schools are converting activity spaces into classrooms to keep up.
The district created a building utilization committee to figure out the best way to handle the growth spurt. Educational leaders, parents and community members on the committee analyzed existing facilities, made site visits and interviewed teachers, students and parents. The committee produced the 10-year Facility Master Plan, which calls for the building of seven new schools and up to three funding referendums between 2016 and 2026.
The first referendum, timed to take advantage of state funding of 75 percent of the construction costs, passed in December 2016. The $267 million raised then is being put toward the building of a new 840-student elementary school in the town of Whitehall, a new high school and middle school at the Fairview Campus. It will also fund renovations at Silver Lake Elementary and the razing and rebuilding of the 88-year-old Everett Meredith Middle School.
Members of the district administration and building committee constantly think about ways to balance accommodating growth with controlling costs.
“It’s always a delicate balance of the needs of the students and the finances of the state,” said Wall. “We are sensitive to the community that’s on a fixed income. We’re always looking for cost savers.”
One of those cost savers is the Fairview Campus in Odessa. First of its kind in the state, the 272-acre property will house schools for grades K-12 in one place. The schools will be built at the same time and share architectural designs. The middle and high schools will share common spaces, including a kitchen, performing arts auditorium, and media center. The campus will also feature a green house and barn to increase learning opportunities in non-traditional subjects.
Local elected officials spoke about their support for the district and its expansion plans at the Fairview groundbreaking ceremony in late January.
“This is something that is vitally important. It’s something that will reap rewards for years to come,” said New Castle County Executive Matthew S. Meyer.
State Rep. Kevin Hensley, a former Appoquinimink School Board member, praised the district and promised to do whatever he could in the legislature to support the building efforts.
He should have plenty of opportunity. Population projections place the new schools near capacity as soon as they open in 2020. The district is planning and building the schools to the largest size it believes best for educating students, Burrows said. That’s 1,600 students for high schools, 900 students for middle schools and 700 to 800 students for elementary schools.
The facilities committee has already started reviewing options to determine the most suitable locations for new schools. Burrows hosts community meetings to show people what their tax dollars are paying for. He plans to start preparing people for a December 2019 referendum by the beginning of next year.
“It’s been well received,” he said. “People are excited. It’s exciting. It keeps us on our toes.”