In 2005 when Tony Immediato moved to sleepy, quiet Middletown to open his own restaurant, the population was around 9,300 and there were seven schools in the Appoquinimink School District.Now as a realtor with Patterson-Schwartz Middletown, Immediato said the home-buying market has “gone crazy” with available land and a top-ranked school district driving interest with young families. In turn, Appoquinimink has at least doubled its number of schools. “In the last 10 years we’ve gone from one high school to three in a 9-mile radius,” he told the Delaware Business Times. “It’s been crazy just seeing the growth. We’re seeing people from all over relocate here — partially because of the taxes, but it’s also the schools.”Good schools remain a top factor among homebuyers nationwide. The 2020 National Association of Realtors Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends study finds that “quality of the school district” was the sixth most-important factor influencing neighborhood choice. But for buyers ages 30 to 39, it was the fourth most important factor.Under the federal Fair Housing Act, realtors are prohibited from sharing opinions about school districts. But there are many websites like Niche.com and GreatSchools.org that easily allow buyers to evaluate them based on average test scores and available resources. In Delaware, Appoquinimink, Cape Henlopen, Indian River and Red Clay school districts often rank among the top of those lists. Because Delaware taxes school districts separately than other public services, it leads many homebuilders to seek out the most-sought-after districts.
Hot buyers’ market
Delaware is a red-hot house market right now, no matter where you turn. The state has typically enjoyed lower property taxes compared to its northern neighbors, but the COVID-19 pandemic has really convinced buyers to start thinking about getting more space for a lower price tag.Closings in the First State by Aug. 8 were up 150% compared to 2019 and 84.9% to 2020, according to data provided by Bright MLS, the multiple listing service for Delaware.“What’s driving the market right now isn’t the schools, it’s the fact that there’s an inventory shortage right now,” said Mia Burch, who works with Long & Foster out of Greenville. “You’re still seeing a lot of people from the surrounding states come to Delaware and settle on homes sometimes sight-unseen because they’re worried if they wait they won’t get it.”While the demographics look different south of the C&D Canal, relocations are still flocking to southern Delaware due to its relatively lower home costs than in the metro areas. Megan Aiken, who has been selling homes in the Middletown region since 2003, said many people have relocated from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut because of the First State’s affordability.“It’s less expensive than what they see in their state, and there’s fewer real estate taxes here. About 60% of our clients are relocations,” said Aiken, who now leads a team for Keller Williams Realty. “The average home we’re selling is about $360,000 today, and it may not seem affordable to some people. But it is for others.”In Sussex County, realtors like Dustin Parker witnessed a wealth of people from D.C. as well as New York and New Jersey flock to find a second home or other property close to the Delaware beaches.“Eighty percent are from the same 10 zip codes from those three states, and as a result you’re starting to see a culture shift here,” said Parker, a ninth-generation Sussex Countian and CEO of the Parker Group. “They get active in the HOAs and local politics and they’re shifting some attitudes with it.”
Where school districts factor in for home-buying choice depends on a buyer’s lifestyle. In the Red Clay and Appoquinimink school districts, realtors find clients are more interested in the school options than some in Indian River and Cape Henlopen school districts.“Sometimes we get families that are dead set for this one school, and others that just want to get in Appo at all,” Aiken said. “It’s a blend of young couples just starting out and those with middle school or elementary school age children.”But as you get closer to the beach, there’s a likelihood of finding retirees or families looking for a slower pace of life, according to Susannah Griffin, a Long & Foster agent based in Rehoboth Beach.“The people who are moving are less about the school district and more of the location, and those who do care, find it’s a great added bonus,” Griffin said. “It’s more of a specific lifestyle that’s sought here. Last fall was just crazy because you were seeing people from urban areas looking for something different.”At the Parker Group, Cape Henlopen is still popular among clients, but Parker notes that school choice options and growing charter schools in the area may be making the district less of a factor for relocating families as a whole.“If you live in a place with school choice, it can be less of a driver than it was two or three years ago,” Parker said. “Things are starting to change with redistricting and that can mean something when it comes to the money allocated with it.”
As the population in Sussex County and the Middletown region continue to grow, so will the growing pains their school districts will face.In the 2020 school year, the Appoquinimink School District had 11,914 students enrolled in 2020, a 57% increase from the 2006 school year. Cape Henlopen, with 5,892 students enrolled, had a 33% increase while Indian River faced a 30% increase with 10,592 students last year. Enrollment statewide slightly dropped due to the pandemic, but Indian River School District was close to hitting its enrollment projections outlined in a 2007 University of Delaware study six years ahead of schedule. Some schools in the district have had to use portable classrooms to handle the classes.“The population is just exploding in the Georgetown and Millsboro area, and we’re going to have to constantly have to look at building space, configurements and how to meet our students' needs,” Indian River Superintendent Jay Owens said. “Even across the southern end near Selbyville we’re seeing growth, and our middle school is near capacity at this point.”Relief may be on the way, as last winter residents voted on a referendum to build a new 2,200-student Sussex Central High School building north of Millsboro. The Millsboro Middle School will join that footprint, while the old middle school will be converted into an elementary school. Redistricting is looming ahead to head off even more overcrowding in Georgetown and Millsboro.Cape Henlopen School District is in a relatively similar situation, as more residents are flocking south of Route 9 and Route 24. Past referendums since 2014 helped to fund more capital expenses — like building four elementary schools as well as expanding two middle schools and one high school — have helped keep the school district ahead of the growth for now.“The challenge is keeping ahead of it all, and in the very near future we’re going to have to form another facilities task force to look at our needs in the next 20 years,” Cape Henlopen Superintendent Rob Fulton said. “But it’s also about finding really good people to work for our schools, whether it’s a bus driver or a principal.”Middletown and its Appoquinimink School District may face the biggest shift in identity in the next couple of years. The district opened Cantwell’s Middle School last year and is planning to open Crystal Run Elementary School this fall. A rush of new residents to the area has increased the town’s population by about 33% in the last decade, according to the Delaware Population Consortium, with even more living out of town limits but in the Appoquinimink district. Voters easily approved a nearly $37 million referendum in 2019 to build new schools to support the influx.“That was shocking to me. To put it in perspective, when I was a kid and we’d come here to play sports all there was was a Tastee-Freez,” Appoquinimink School District Superintendent Matthew Burrows said. “As we continue to grow, I think it’s important for us not to silo things as we’re planning ahead. We need to reach all members of our community, whether that’s the Rotary or our 55 and older communities as well.”