District’s renewed emphasis on career-technical education requires investments in spaces for industry-standard technology and equipment

 

The Sussex Technical School District faces escalating expenses for maintenance for its aging buildings, essential security upgrades, and the need to improve traffic flow along U.S. 9 and on its campus, according to a five-month independent review by a respected architectural and engineering firm.

From left, Sussex Tech Director of Transportation and Operations Hud Athey and Superintendent Stephen Guthrie inspect one of the high school building’s boiler rooms.

A district building feasibility project outlined three options for improvements: renovating only the oldest parts of the complex and continuing patchwork repairs to the newer wings, at a cost of $190.2 million; renovating the entire school complex, at a cost of $177.6 million; and building an entirely new school, at a cost of $150.5 million.

The Sussex Technical Board of Education recently endorsed the third and most frugal option, constructing a new school building, saving taxpayers $40 million from the most expensive option. The plan aims to ensure the future of Sussex County’s career-technical education programs for both high school students and adult learners. The Board voted unanimously to pursue that option at its August 12 meeting.

“We take saving taxpayers’ money seriously because we all pay taxes in Sussex County,” said Board President Warren Reid. “After the data was presented to us in three options, the new school is the option that saves taxpayers the most. It is the most responsible choice for the future of our students and the workforce in Sussex County. This will not be an extravagant building, just what we need to serve our high school and adult education students.”

“Sussex County taxpayers trust us to be good stewards of their money, and building a new school saves taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Over the last year, under new leadership, we have put a renewed emphasis on our core career-technical programs to better serve Sussex County. We have reduced spending, increased transparency, and brought a new focus to preparing our students for their future,” said District Superintendent Stephen Guthrie.“This proposal is the next step in our obligation to meet the needs of our students and our county, and have a school of which Sussex County can be proud.”

An aging campus: ‘Renovation is Band-Aid solution’

Sussex Technical High School is home to over 1,200 high school students and 2,800 adult education students. High school students each choose one of 17 technical areas in which to concentrate. The main high school building was constructed in stages, with wings being added on each decade. The oldest wing was built 59 years ago, in 1960; other sections were built in 1964, 1970, 1995, 2000 and 2008.

Within the last year, three washouts have occurred in the high school parking lots as old terracotta drainage pipes collapsed, requiring emergency repairs. This washout began with a hole the size of a softball and led to the digging of a 170-foot-long trench to replace the pipes.

From the outside, the building looks fine. But behind the scenes, Sussex Tech has spent about $14 million over the last few years on maintenance and improvements alone – repairs to roofs, renovations of student career-technical areas, security installations, and an HVAC overhaul, among other items.

“Those costs will rise as the campus continues to age. Our engineering consultant has concluded that renovation is only a Band-Aid solution – paying good money for what is only a temporary fix,” Guthrie said. “We are answerable to Sussex County taxpayers, and it is neither right nor ethical to continue to sink their money into an inefficient building with outdated and wasteful mechanical systems that are expensive to operate.”

There are also more than 20 outbuildings on campus, mostly used by technical areas and specialty classrooms, such as driver’s education, JROTC, band and chorus. The JROTC building is 55 years old, the auto tech building is 49 years old, and the auto body building is 44 years old. Some classroom spaces are temporary structures still being used as classrooms 20 years later.

Unlike other schools, our campus is also home to students in the district’s adult education programs, serving 2,800 students each year. They attend class at night to complete their high school diplomas, take ESL classes, or complete apprenticeship training programs in fields like welding, plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and automotive technologies.

Multiple improvements needed

The independent review by consultant ABHA/BSA+A identified several pressing challenges beyond escalating maintenance costs, including:

The roofs of several wings of Sussex Technical High School are dotted with patches such as this area.
  • the need for improved traffic circulation on campus, which would reduce twice-daily traffic snarls along U.S. 9 when school begins and lets out;
  • the importance of needed security upgrades to ensure student and staff safety; and
  • the necessity for improved, upgraded, and flexible space for technical area classrooms to accommodate industry-standard equipment and technologies in future years.

Building a new school is the only option that sufficiently addresses all of those issues, Reid said. “Renovating does not begin to tackle the traffic issues that we hear complaints about daily, nor does it implement critical safety measures,” he said. “Our county deserves a career-technical school with these basic improvements to give our students a quality education, high school and adult learners alike.”

ABHA/BSA+A has extensive experience on Delaware school projects, and has also worked with Delaware’s two other career-technical school districts.

Ultimate cost to taxpayers: A fast-food sandwich each month

Estimates indicate that the project would have a small effect on individual Sussex County taxpayers. As the only school district serving all Sussex County residents, Sussex Tech is supported by property taxes from all county taxpayers, which spreads the individual impact across more people than in a traditional district.

Cracking and bulging is easily visible on the exterior of one of Sussex Technical High School’s older wings.

The building project is estimated to cost the average homeowner about $38.13at its peak in the third year, with costs decreasing every year after that. At its height, that’s $3.18 per month for the average single-family homeowner – less than the price of an order of Chicken McNuggets.

“We believe that this is a responsible investment for the future of Sussex County’s workforce and economy,” said Board Vice President Greg Johnson. “Our high school students and adult learners will all benefit – which ultimately helps our businesses in hiring new employees with the right skills.”

Reducing impact on students

Building a new school will also have the least impact on students, Reid observed. Both renovation options would require moving students out of their current wings into temporary space. Renovating part of the complex, the most expensive option, would also take longer, meaning that some students would spend their entire high school career learning in temporary classrooms.

Bricks cracking
Several cracks on the exterior of the high school go through the center of the bricks.

The costs for the renovation options are higher primarily due to the need to build temporary technical area classroom space, Guthrie noted. “It’s not as simple as buying a trailer for a traditional classroom. Those areas will need special buildings and infrastructure, such as utilities,” he said.

“A career-technical high school has needs that differ from a conventional school,” Guthrie said. “Our students need to use industry-standard equipment such as dental radiography machines, cosmetology work stations, and HVAC-R vacuum pumps and tanks. You can’t just carry saws and routers into a trailer and start a carpentry lesson.”

Next steps

The district will be applying for a certificate of necessity with the Delaware Department of Education for this fall’s review period, the first step in receiving state budget support.

Constructing a new high building would not require the purchase of additional land; the district would take advantage of wooded areas on the current campus footprint. The site has already cleared the Preliminary Land Use Service (PLUS) process from a prior proposal several years ago.

The current school has a footprint of about 294,000 square feet, including the main building and outbuildings. The new building would have about 313,000 square feet. The building would have capacity for 1,600 students to accommodate intense student interest and growth. Last fall saw 802 Sussex County 8th-graders apply for about 280 slots, the largest application class in history. The high school currently has about 1,250 enrolled students, and also serves about 2,800 adult education students in the evenings.

Specific plans for the new building and campus layout would be designed after state support is received. An initial concept proposal from ABHA/BSA+A, which is not final, recommended centralizing the school wings and outbuildings into a single building, with space for technical areas, traditional academic subjects, adult education, athletics, and arts programs. It would use space to the rear of the current campus for the new school building and move athletic practice fields along U.S. 9.

More information

The district has an informational page on its website at https://www.sussexvt.k12.de.us/highschool/future/. Feedback and questions can be sent to future@sussexvt.k12.de.us.

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