Delaware has six district referendums this school year, the most since the 2009-2010 school year.

Why Delaware is having the most school referendums in 14 years

Jarek RutzHeadlines, Education

Delaware has six district referendums this school year, the most since the 2009-2010 school year.

Delaware has six district referendums this school year, the most since the 2009-2010 school year.

The largest number of Delaware school districts in 14 years are holding elections in 2024 to ask their residents to agree to raise taxes for education.

State and education leaders cite inflation, population growth, state-mandate raises for education, changes in funding and the COVID-19 pandemic as among reasons why six of the state’s 19 districts are making the case for more cash.

Appoquinimink, Brandywine, Cape Henlopen, Colonial, Red Clay Consolidated and Smyrna – all among the top 10 largest districts based on the number of students served –  are going to the polls in the 2023-2024 school year. 

RELATED: 5 school districts to hold tax hike referenda in 2024

RELATED: Cape Henlopen 6th district to hold tax hike vote; March 26

The 2009-2010 academic year was the last time the First State had this many school referendums, when residents of the Appo, Capital, Christina, Indian River, Laurel and Seaford districts hit the polls, per the state Department of Elections.

Those votes coincided with the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

What is a referendum?

Districts ask for a referendum when they are trying to raise local tax money to support operational costs or to match state-funding for capital projects.

Operating funding will help the district maintain its day-to-day operations. That can include  transportation expenses, supporting extracurricular programs, updating technology, giving teachers raises, hiring constables and more.

A capital referendum typically is tied to state funding for building projects which requires matching funding from a district, usually about one-third.

If, for example, a capital project costs $100 million, the state would provide $65 million while the district needs to pony up the remaining $35 million. 

If a capital referendum fails,  the district can try a second time. If it fails again, the district loses the state money and likely won’t be able to complete the project.

But votes on construction aren’t easy sells.

Jeff Menzer, superintendent of Colonial School District, said operational referendums are much more likely to succeed than capital ones. 

Case in point, Appoquinimink School District had a referendum with a capital component that failed in late 2023, while Brandywine’s referendum, which was completely operational, passed by a large margin last week.

That has not stopped Colonial from highlighting the $50.6 million it plans to allot to sports facilities upgrades if its $61 million referendum. 

Those upgrades – some desperately needed for a decade or more – appeal to student and community pride and often are open to the community for use.

That vote is Feb. 29.

COVID and school funding

Schools received emergency funding from the federal government during COVID to help schools and students catch up on lost learning. 

Districts used them for curriculum material, tutoring for students and dealing with air quality issues in schools.

Sen. Eric Buckson, R-Dover, a former educator, and a member of the Senate Education Committee believes the influx of federal and stimulus money contributed to the need for referendums.

“It’s complex because the money that was allocated, the federal government put it out there with the threat of an audit,” he said, “They said districts have to keep it in these lanes, and then districts had a hard time spending the money when they quickly realized that there’s only so many things they can do.”

Stripping the freedom for districts to spend the federal money exactly how they see fit leaves them in a position to ask for money from taxpayers when they could have used COVID money to address some of their needs, he said.

Julia Keleher, chief strategy and operating officer at First State Educate, an education advocacy group, noted that pandemic funds could be used for projects like improving air quality in schools. 

“So if they needed new windows or electricity, I’m not sure that would get covered,” she said. “but a ventilation system could work” because it improved air flow and reduced the risk of COVID spreading.

Keleher said districts were not likely to hold a referendum during the pandemic. It would have been much harder to garner needed votes through mail-in ballots.

As the pandemic waned, inflation rose, which many blamed on federal stimulus checks.

Buckson said inflation impacted every aspect of school, from transportation to salaries to health care costs.

The costs of operating a school can’t be separated from the cost of life, Keleher said.

“Everything is more expensive, so that cost just gets passed around,” she said. That impact was not always evenly spread around, she said.

Timing of referendums

COVID definitely affected school districts’ ability to stretch out the time between referendums, said Colonial’s Menzer.

And now they will have to comply with a plan to raise educator pay dramatically in the next few years so Delaware can remain competitive with nearby states, which are already in the process of doing that.

“Districts go out for a three- to five- year window, so if there was any referendum that was coming up in 2020, you bought yourself time,” he said. “COVID almost level-set everybody to be at the same spot… It definitely helped districts stem the gap between having to go back to the public for a tax increase.”

Supply-chain issues added another challenge to upgrading or maintaining existing facilities, he said. 

Menzer pointed to New Castle Elementary School, which was built in 1920.

It had a variety of upgrades and additions “cobbled together into different individual type heating and cooling systems and air quality systems that are now outdated,” he said.

Upgrading that facility is going to be harder and different than upgrading Souther Elementary School, a relatively new school.

Keleher would like to see an inventory of all 200+ Delaware schools so the state, districts and public could evaluate the age of each, what upgrades need to be done, where they are on a scale of maintenance and what projects have they deferred.

The state has introduced a new tool to do something similar. 

Structured like a rubric, the facility assessment tool will help catalog and identify areas in need of attention so school facilities are clean, safe and functional for staff and students.

RELATED: State releases online tool to help schools evaluate facilities

Information provided by the districts will go into categories such as plumbing, mold and mildew, roofs, gas leaks, water quality, fire safety and more.

Districts will be required to provide the assessments to the Department of Education in May each year, along with a board-approved repair and maintenance plan.  

Letting voters define ‘healthy’

Keleher also would like to see some definition or template of what community members, who are helping to fund district projects, consider a good and healthy school environment. 

The state limits the amount of students who can be in one classroom to 22 but districts can submit waivers to the Department of Education if its student population surpasses that number.

Keleher believes the residents should have more of a say.

“For the voters, what conditions do we want to see in a school building?” she said. “What’s the learning environment or the classroom environment? Where do we want to put children and what kind of investments are needed in that infrastructure to make sure that it’s a healthy, safe, encouraging, enriching, engaging environment?”

If all voters agreed what characteristics and elements a school building should have, it would make the process a lot smoother, she said.

The same goes for revenue flow. 

Keleher said it’s not clear to the average parent or community member where money comes from. 

If that was clearer, she believes, they would have a better understanding of the district’s ability to pull from one bucket to fill another, rather than heading to referendum.

Growing population

The state also needs to know exactly how many children are heading to our schools, Buckson said.

While emphasizing that children are children and all deserve an amazing education, he pointed out the influx of people into the state and country – including many who are illegally here.

“They’re moving into these areas because they’re reasonably expected to be in a friendly area to move into, to educate your child and begin to grow a family, but they’re under-accounted for,” he said. 

He knows people will call that insensitive.

“No one’s saying that you should not deal with that situation. No one’s saying that we shouldn’t educate,” he said. “What I’m saying is right now we’ve got a leak, it’s a massive leak and we’ve had it over the last three to four years and that’s exaggerated itself.”

He said he’s not advocating what he calls a head tax – also known as a poll tax, which is a fixed amount levied on people no matter how much they make or own.

But he believes the funding system is upside down and says it’s hard to comprehend what the state and districts have to do to keep up with the growing population if they’re just going to use traditional property taxes versus a head tax to help fund schools. 

Regardless of citizenship status or not, districts across the state have at one point or another cited a growing student body that they need to serve. 

Districts with exploding population and an increase in housing, like Appo, Cape Henlopen and Smyrna are much more likely to need capital referendums, Menzer said.

That’s partly because they are much more likely to receive federal funding based on that growth.

“It really depends on the age of your existing buildings, and how many buildings you have,” Menzer said. “There’s no exact science to it. There’s no formula to put everything into. It really is district by district.”

He said districts have to be held accountable for their spending and programming, but it makes it very difficult to operate and  provide the kinds of facilities that the community deserves.

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