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Christina School District tries new approach in new referendum request

Delaware Public Media

After Christina School District residents resoundingly defeated a referendum to increase school taxes in February, Christy Mannering was so upset that she wrote a three-page letter to the board of education and the district superintendent, outlining mistakes she thought they had made in the campaign and what they might have done better.

“I felt like they really dropped the ball, and the people who were going to pay for that are the children,” says Mannering, a graphics designer at the University of Delaware who has two children attending Keene Elementary School.

Mannering’s letter “ruffled a few feathers,” says Wendy Lapham, Christina’s public information officer, but district officials were not about to write her off as another disgruntled parent.

On Wednesday, the district is making a second attempt to win approval of a tax increase – albeit a smaller one this time around – and Mannering is serving as co-chair of the referendum steering committee.

The proposal, which would maintain most existing programs but not any new ones, calls for an increase of 37 cents per $100 of property value, phased in over three years – 28 cents in 2015-16, and 5 cents and 4 cents in the two succeeding years. For the average home in the district, with an assessed value of $64,000, the full three-year increase would total $236.80, or nearly $20 per month. In February, residents were asked to vote on a larger, two-part hike – a 65-cent boost spread over three years to continue current programs and an additional 40 cents phased in over four years to add new programs and expand existing ones. The base proposal was defeated, 6,076 to 2,119. The supplemental proposal failed by a wider margin, 6,348 to 1,826.

“I wasn’t sure [the request] was clear to the electorate. The vote failed miserably,” recalls James Bonds, a communications and management consultant who serves on the board of directors of the Eastside Charter School in Wilmington, whose enrollment includes students who live in the Christina district.

Like Mannering, Bonds shared his concerns with Christina’s leaders – and they put him to work too, heading the communications subcommittee of the referendum steering committee.

“We have to be clear and crisp, and we have to have it branded,” says Bonds.

The branding for the referendum is a slogan designed to unite constituencies that sometimes have seemed at odds: “Christina, Charter, Choice, We All Win.”

Indeed, before the February vote, Christina officials noted that with more than 4,400 district residents attending public charter schools and a net loss of about 700 students to other districts through the state’s choice enrollment program, more than $18 million of Christina’s property tax revenue was being channeled to schools outside the district.

This time, there’s a different spin. Rather than lamenting this loss of funds, referendum proponents note that, under charter and choice regulations, the money follows the student from the district of residence to the school the student attends. So, if the referendum passes, Christina has more money available per pupil; if it fails, Christina has the same amount per pupil – or less.

“It makes sense,” says Greg Meece, director of the Newark Charter School. “They’re appealing to taxpayers who reside in the district. They’re connected to the district no matter where their children go to school.”

About 95 percent of Newark Charter’s students are Christina residents, so the school would stand to gain revenue next year if the referendum passes.

While Newark Charter has a policy of not becoming involved in political issues, Meece said he was contacted by Christina officials prior to the February referendum and, with the permission of his school’s board of directors, sent a letter to “educate our parents on how the outcome of the referendum could impact our school.” On Tuesday he said he planned to send out a similar message this week.

Bonds says he has made the same point with fellow board members at Eastside Charter. “We lose if they lose. If the referendum fails, we all fail,” he says.

Mannering and Bonds also reached out to Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, an advocacy group for charter schools. At their request, Massett wrote a newsletter item directed to charter school families, in which she stated, after noting that the network’s nonprofit status bars it from urging readers to vote in a particular way, “a charter school’s funding includes a local piece and increased monies from an operating referendum will increase our funds.”

Massett also said that, to the best of her knowledge, this is the first time a Delaware school district (other than Red Clay, which oversees three charter schools of its own) has made a direct pitch for support from charter school families in a referendum campaign.

The effort to run a more inclusive campaign involves more than appealing to parents of students in charter schools and the choice program, Lapham says.

“We learned that we did an inadequate job [in February] of engaging the community and explaining the need for the referendum,” she says.

The district sought too much of a tax increase, and didn’t do a good job of describing how the money would be spent, Mannering says.

In addition, she notes, the district was being buffeted by other distractions – a battle with Gov. Markell and the state Department of Education over the designation of three underperforming schools in Wilmington as “priority schools”; Markell’s since-rejected suggestion to cut in half a property tax break for senior citizens; and early reports of a possible redrawing of district lines that would put Christina’s schools in Wilmington under Red Clay’s jurisdiction.

“You can make excuses that a lot of things were going on in the district, but that doesn’t do us any good,” Lapham says.

This time around, Mannering says, the district has tried to build a campaign that involves its key constituencies – parents, teachers and administrators – and includes campaign committees within each school building.

“We’ve got volunteers and staff knocking on doors, holding events and making phone calls,” in both the Wilmington and greater Newark areas of the district, she says. “That’s been a wonderful surprise.”

One of those volunteers is 72-year-old Maurice Pritchett, retired principal of Bancroft Elementary School in Wilmington. All four of his children attended Christina schools, went on to college and earned master’s degrees, he said.

Pritchett didn’t participate in the February campaign but got involved this time because he was upset with what he considered negative publicity about the district. “That hurt me deeply. I couldn’t sit on the sideline. I felt I had to do something.”

He has been making phone calls, going to meetings, and generally talking up the referendum with Wilmington residents. “The additional money is needed to support our children,” he says.

Following the February referendum, the district announced $1.8 million in budget cuts. Those trims will not be restored if the referendum passes.

Mike Kempski, president of the Christina Education Association, the district’s teachers union, noted that referendum, if passed, will not generate “an exorbitant amount of money that will make huge changes in the district. It will let us sustain what we have.”

The district’s campaign this spring has been better organized than the one in February. “The profile is much higher, the effort to reach more people is greater, information is being shared more widely, and the parents’ role is prominent,” he says.

As with any referendum advocate, Kempski would have preferred to have seen the larger tax increase be approved in February.

But, he says, “a referendum that will pass will help us a lot more than one that wouldn’t pass.


The Christina School District is proposing an increase in property taxes for school operations of 37 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, spread over three years – an increase of 28 cents per $100 in 2015-16, followed by increases of 5 cents and 4 cents in the two following years. The district says the additional funds are needed to maintain programs at current levels.

If the increase is not approved, the district would cut about 100 employees (most of them teachers), and reduce or eliminate athletic programs, after-school programs and extracurricular activities. Individual school budgets for supplies, materials and other items, including books, paper, field trips, Smart Boards and laptop computers, substitute teachers and supplies for school nurses, would also be reduced.

Polls are open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at most district schools, the Carvel State Office Building and the Quaker Hill Place Apartments in Wilmington, the Bear Library and the First Presbyterian Church of Newark. Here is a complete list of locations.

To see how the referendum would affect your taxes, look here.

More information on the referendum is available here.


Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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