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Building a new Sussex Tech is the fiscally responsible move

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By Warren Reid and Stephen Guthrie
Guest Columnists

To the passing motorist on U.S. 9, Sussex Technical High School looks nearly like a brand-new school. Walking through the hallways, the wings look nearly like they were when they were built throughout the last six decades.

But behind the scenes, our main building is in severe need of repair. In recent years, we have spent more than $14 million on maintenance and building improvements, money which only just keeps the building running and does not go toward educating Sussex County’s students.

That’s why the Board of Education hired a consultant for an independent feasibility study earlier this year to look at all our options. And it’s why the Board has asked the state to support the construction of a new high school — the cheapest and best option of the three, saving taxpayers between $24 million and $26 million.

This will not be an elaborate Taj Mahal of a school, but a practical, career-focused hub for technical education to serve students exploring 17 different paths, from auto technologies to nursing and health professions. It is estimated to cost the average homeowner just $38.18 per year at its height in the third year and decline each year after that — less than the price of a fast-food sandwich each month.

We have heard Sussex residents and leaders alike tell us that they want a focus on career-technical education, and we have delivered, with a renewed emphasis on work-based learning that will give every senior the opportunity to work part time in their technical field.

We have also taken concrete steps to reduce our spending and improve transparency in light of past actions by the district’s previous leadership. We are not asking for a blank check for elaborate offices or buying new land, but for a concrete commitment to strengthening career options for Sussex County students and preparing them for their futures.

Delivering a top-quality education requires investments in our physical infrastructure. Right now, your tax dollars are simply being wasted by increasing maintenance and operational costs. We have spent millions of dollars on Band-Aid solutions to keep decades-old roofs from leaking, ensure that struggling HVAC systems are cooling and heating properly, and make needed security improvements. Our maintenance team has done a phenomenal job keeping the building running and in good shape, but the underlying factors cannot be ignored. 

Our electrical systems were designed for 1960s and ’70s-era schooling, not for a modern technical education with computers and advanced machinery and tools that have a heavier energy draw.

Over the last 12 months, we have had three washouts in our parking lots — decades-old underground pipes collapsing, creating holes where vehicles would park and requiring immediate emergency repairs.

Our main building and campus were stitched together haphazardly over the years, leading to traffic flow problems that create huge backups on U.S. 9 at the beginning and end of the school days. It is only a matter of time until an accident occurs.

Sussex Tech is also the only of our county’s high schools used consistently from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. After our high school students leave, our adult education students arrive for night classes — to complete their high school diplomas, learn English, or complete training programs in nursing, phlebotomy, welding, plumbing, carpentry or automotive technologies.

Career-technical high schools have a unique set of needs, requiring not just classrooms with desks and tables but industry-standard technology and equipment.

Our consultant, the respected architectural and engineering partnership ABHA/BSA+A, spent months studying our school, talking with teachers and staff, and evaluating costs. Its staff outlined three options for the Board of Education to consider:

  • Significant renovation to all parts of the main school: $177.6 million
  • Renovating only the newer wings and replacing older wings: $179.2 million
  • Building a replacement school: $150.5 million

As you can see, building the new school is the most fiscally responsible choice. The renovation costs are so high because those options would require moving students into temporary classroom spaces which would need special infrastructure for our students’ technical equipment, like carpentry saws, HVAC pumps, dental stations, and medical beds. Renovating part of the complex would also take longer and mean that some students would spend their entire high school career in temporary structures.

Sussex County’s students deserve a high-quality career-technical education. They deserve opportunities to learn carpentry, physical therapy, HVAC and electrical trades and graduate equipped to jump into a career or begin an apprenticeship, trade school or college to advance their education.

Warren Reid is president of the Sussex Technical Board of Education. Stephen Guthrie is superintendent of the Sussex Technical School District 

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