Q&A: Why does Tech need a new building?

Q&A: Why does Tech need a new building?
Posted on 08/20/2019

What exactly is Sussex Tech proposing?

Sussex Tech is asking for state support for a new high school building to replace the existing school, saving taxpayers millions in spending on maintenance of our current complex. The new-school option is the most affordable for taxpayers, saving them between $27 million and $40 million when compared to renovation options.

The Board of Education has unanimously endorsed the option and the district will be applying for state support. The average Sussex County’s homeowner’s share is estimated to peak at $38.18 in the third year, and then go down each year after that. That works out to less than an order of Chicken McNuggets each month. 

Why does Sussex Tech need a new school building?

Our buildings are old and in need of replacement, with significant behind-the-scenes infrastructure problems. Over the last several years, the district has spent $14 million on building and campus maintenance and operations alone – money that does not go toward educating our students. Those costs will only increase, and that means taxpayers’ dollars are being ultimately wasted as the building ages.

Visitors driving by on U.S. 9 and walking down our hallways remark how great the building looks. But the excellent job that our operations teams have done on repairs, cleaning, and upkeep hide the fact that four of our seven wings were built before 1970 – more than 50 years ago. We have spent money to keep roofs from leaking, make sure HVAC systems don’t break down, upgrade our security systems, and – most recently – to repair washouts in our parking lots from decades-old pipes collapsing.

As Sussex County’s career-technical high school, our needs are also slightly different than traditional high schools. In addition to classroom space, we have 17 technical areas – carpentry, HVAC, cosmetology, education, health professions, and more. Most of those areas require specialized equipment to prepare our students for their futures, as well as some flexibility to accommodate advances in technology.

How old is the current building?

Our high school building was constructed in stages as the programs expanded over the decades. The oldest wing was built 59 years ago, in 1960. Other sections were built in 1964, 1970, 1995, 2000, and 2008. The oldest sections of our main building, built in the 1960s and 1970s, make up about 50 percent of its footprint.

Some of the increasing costs we are dealing with stem from how the school was built. HVAC, electrical, and water systems were not built efficiently, but tacked on to each other as the new wings were added. That means our heating and cooling systems are more efficient in some parts of the building than others.

The oldest parts of our building are home to some of our core industrial/engineering technical areas, like HVAC, carpentry, and electrical.

We also have more than 20 outbuildings on campus, mostly used by technical areas like auto technologies, auto body, and landscape/environmental, as well as driver’s education, JROTC, band, and chorus. Some classroom spaces are temporary structures still being used as classrooms 20 years later. Some of them have been renovated over the years, but they are still 50- and 40-year-old buildings.

How much will the building cost?

We hired an independent consultant who estimates that it will cost $150.5 million. That works out to $38.18 for the average Sussex County homeowner at its highest in the third year, or about $3.18 per month – less than the price of a fast-food sandwich. After the third year, that cost will decline each year.

That includes everything from land clearing to construction, as well as moving equipment and furniture from the old building to the new one. That cost does not include purchasing land, as the building will be constructed on land already owned by the district; it does not include elaborate new offices or expensive furniture; and it does not include huge investments in our athletic programs except moving some fields.

What other options were considered? Why can’t you just renovate the buildings to make them like new?

We hired a consultant to conduct an independent review of our buildings. Their experts studied our buildings, interviewed our staff and evaluated costs. They recommended choosing one of three options:

  • Renovating only the oldest parts of the school: $190.2 million
  • Renovating the entire school complex: $177.6 million
  • Building an entirely new school: $150.5 million

As you can see, renovation is the most expensive choice, and building a new school saves taxpayers between $27 million and $40 million.

That may not make sense at first, but it’s due to the high cost of setting up temporary classroom spaces during construction. Sussex Tech’s career-technical areas use specialized equipment like saws and routers in carpentry, medical beds in health professions, and chairs and exam equipment in dental services.

Those temporary spaces will cost much more than standard portable classrooms because that equipment needs specialized wiring, HVAC and water infrastructure to operate, as well as security and fire suppression systems. We can’t just put desks and tables in a trailer to educate our students on auto body repair, hairstyling, electrical systems, or computer networking.

Has Sussex Tech’s enrollment been increasing?

Under state law, Sussex Technical High School’s enrollment has been capped at 1,250 for several years. We are only allowed to accept as many freshmen as we have openings for under that cap. However, we have seen an increase in the number of 8th-graders applying. Last year saw 802 applicants, the largest in our history. We were able to accept fewer than 300.

What has Sussex Tech done to cut spending already?

Under our new superintendent, Stephen Guthrie, we hired a new financial director who took a line-by-line examination of our spending and revenues. We cut $250,000 from our operating spending this year, about a 3 percent reduction in our local current expense funds, including consolidating budgets and eliminating some expenses that weren’t essential. We will continue examining our spending and making cuts where necessary, with the goal of minimizing the impact on students.

Why should I trust Sussex Tech when you misspent money in the past?

Your trust is important to us, and we believe in transparency. We understand that prior administrations made the wrong decisions when it came to spending your money. That’s why the new school board and superintendent have taken several important steps to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars including:

  • We have put new spending policies in place, requiring Board of Education oversight of purchases of $10,000 and above.
  • We have hired a new financial director who has taken a line-by-line look at all our spending and revenues.
  • We have cut our operating spending this year by $250,000, totaling about a three percent reduction in our local current expense funds.
  • To study our building and campus infrastructure, we hired an independent consultant to do research and outline the options that would best serve Sussex County students.

Who is Sussex Tech’s leadership?

Our new superintendent is Stephen Guthrie of Bethany Beach, who joined the district in July 2018 after a long career as a superintendent and administrator in Maryland. Our board members come from all over the county. They were chosen to represent you.

How much will this new building cost me?

The new building is estimated to cost $150.5 million. For taxpayers, the share will be phased in over three years and then decline each year after that. In the third year, at its highest, that is estimated to be just $38.18 per year for the average Sussex County single-family homeowner. That works out to about $3.18 per month, less than the price of a fast-food sandwich.

What will happen if a new building is not built?

The status quo will continue – Sussex Tech will continue to spend money on maintenance and operations costs for an outdated building. For example, we spent $1.2 million over the last three years fixing leaking roofs, repairing collapsed underground pipes, and improving security features that were essential to keeping our building in working order. None of that money went to educate our students.

Those maintenance costs will only continue to increase. Sussex Tech’s leadership does not view that as responsible spending. A new school building would guarantee that the money is not wasted.

What would a new school look like? Can I see the design?

The school has not yet been designed. That will be the next step if state officials approve funding. Our consultant has presented a rough concept plan of what the layout could look like, below. As the design process begins, we will hold community meetings to gather input and ideas. Those meetings will be public and shared with the community in advance.


Building concept outline



Why don’t voters get to approve Sussex Tech’s request like in other school districts?

Under state law, all three of Delaware’s vocational-technical school districts – in New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties – have a unique funding system. Rather than going to voters when they need funding, they ask the General Assembly and the Governor for their support. Sussex Tech is no different than the other vocational-technical districts. Only the General Assembly can change state law.

Why don’t voters get to elect Sussex Tech’s board members like in other school districts?

Under state law, the boards of education of all three Delaware’s vocational-technical school districts – in New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties – are appointed by the Governor. Sussex Tech is no different than the other vocational-technical districts. Only the General Assembly can change state law.

I have a specific question. How can I get it answered?

Email future@sussexvt.k12.de.us with your question, and we will answer it to the best of our ability.

Sussex Technical School District. All rights reserved.