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Christina School District takes on taxing effort of building referendum support

Delaware Public Media

A number of school districts have held tax referendums this year, with varying results. Next up is the Christina School District, which puts its ask for more operating budget funding before voters April 30th.

It’s a crucial vote for the district, which is in the midst of working with the state to reorganize its Wilmington schools in an effort to improve student outcomes there

Contributor Larry Nagengast delves into what the district is asking for - and what could happen if it fails.

Residents of the Christina School District approved a tax increase in March 2016 that was designed to restore the previous year’s budget cuts and help the district chart a new course for the future.

“The things that were promised in 2016 were actually done,” Superintendent Rick Gregg says. And the additional funding, which was supposed to keep the district running smoothly for two years, actually lasted for three.

Now, on April 30, Christina is again asking its residents to approve another tax increase, one that would allow the district to continue all its current programs for three more years, provide a cushion for pay increases to be negotiated in the next round of union contract negotiations, and cover the cost of a new arts and innovation curriculum in a magnet program at Newark High School.

“We knew we couldn’t come up with a big list like this was Christmas,” says Meredith Griffin, the school board president. “We looked at what we have to do at the most basic level and where we want the district to go.”

The hike would come in three steps – 24 cents per $100 of assessed valuation in the first year, and another five cents per $100 in each of the next two years. For the average property in the district, one that’s assessed at $64,100, based on 1983 real estate values, taxes would increase by almost $154 in the first year and by an additional $32 in each of the next two years, for a total of about $218 after three years, or not quite $19 a month.

The increase, if approved, would give the district another $13.5 million in revenue for the upcoming school year, plus $2.8 million more in 2020-21 and again in 2021-22.

“All the things the district said it was going to do in 2016, we’ve done,” says Gregg, who is completing his second year as superintendent. “Now we want to continue the journey we’ve started.”

The successful 2016 referendum, following two failed attempts in 2015, reduced class sizes, added school resource officers, restored other cuts in school budgets and allocated money to plan for new educational options.

That planning process has led to the creation of magnet programs at two high schools – agricultural sciences and health sciences at Christiana High School and business and humanities at Glasgow High School, with a hospitality and culinary arts program also slated to start at Glasgow in the fall of 2021. Those programs qualify for special career and technical education funding through the state Department of Education, but the proposed arts and innovation programs at Newark High School don’t fall under the career-technical education category, so one penny of the proposed tax increase would go for their start-up funding, according to Robert Silber, Christina’s finance director.

The idea behind the magnets, Gregg says, “is to provide opportunities for every student without having to offer identical programs at each high school.” While existing attendance zones will remain, the district will provide bus transportation to students interested in a magnet program – for example, a student in the Glasgow High zone who wants to study health sciences at Christiana.

If the referendum does not pass, the district would have to make significant budget cuts, and those decisions would have to be made by the board of education in the first week of May because of the state’s May 15 deadline for renewing individual teacher contracts for the upcoming year, Gregg and Silber say.

“We’ve given [possible cuts] some thought, but right now we’re focused on getting the referendum passed,” Gregg says.

The rejected tax hikes in 2015 triggered $9 million in budget cuts that resulted in layoffs for 78 teachers and 14 aides.

“There will be fewer teachers and more crowded classrooms” if the referendum fails, says state Rep. Paul Baumbach, a Newark Democrat who supports the district’s request. Eighty to 100 teachers could lose their jobs, Christina board member John Young estimated last month.

Christina officials note that passage of the referendum would benefit all of the 20,000 or so public school students who reside in the district, both the 14,400 in district schools and the more than 5,000 who attend public charter schools or use the state’s choice program to enroll in public schools in other districts. That’s because districts must forward their “local per student cost” to the charter schools or other districts that enroll their resident students.

“The money follows the student,” Silber says. So, if the referendum fails, charter schools that enroll students who live in Christina would receive less money than they’re receiving now because local per-student spending would be reduced. And, if the referendum passes, higher per-pupil spending within the district would translate into higher per-pupil payments to charter and choice schools.

Passing a referendum is almost always a challenge for Delaware school officials, partly because of the way the school finance system is structured and partly because it is the only opportunity voters in the state have to say no to tax hikes at any level of government.

Three school districts have held referenda this year. Tax hikes were approved in the Capital district and rejected in Indian River and Woodbridge.

“The legislature has made this an uphill battle for every district because you have to come back every two or three years just to keep the lights on,” Baumbach says. Although he’s usually considered a strong supporter of public education, Baumbach is making it a point to back this referendum because “as a legislator, I recognize that we haven’t been able to do what we should be doing.”

Because property assessments in New Castle County have not been adjusted since 1983, the base on which tax rates are calculated has remained flat. That is unlike income and sales taxes, from which additional revenue is usually realized every year without a rate increase because the base (earnings or product cost) typically increases through inflation and other economic pressures.

Other factors have complicated the assessment issue, Silber says. The closure of the Chrysler auto assembly plant in Newark and its subsequent redevelopment as the University of Delaware’s STAR campus transformed a major taxable site into one that is tax-exempt, except for the portion occupied by Bloom Energy. And real-estate developers, like the owners of the DuPont Building in downtown Wilmington, have had success in filing appeals to secure lowered assessments when the use of such structures has changed. When assessments of business properties are reduced or eliminated, owners of residential properties must shoulder a larger proportion of the tax burden.

A lawsuit challenging property assessments and the state’s school funding system was filed last year. A ruling on the assessment portion of the case could come late this year.

Griffin says the concern he has heard most often from residents relates to the frequency of referenda and the feeling that “yet another increase” in taxes is on the way. In response, he says he tries to emphasize that “education is a common good that benefits us all” and that “the funding is something we all have to bear.”

The situation in Christina is more complex because, as a result of a 1978 school desegregation order, it is one of a handful of districts nationwide split into noncontiguous parts, with one section in urban Wilmington and the other in the suburban Newark-Bear-Glasgow-Christiana area.

Adding to the complication this year is the development of a state-directed plan to reconfigure and improve the schools in the Wilmington portion of the district. Under an agreement negotiated between the Christina Board of Education and Christina Education Association, teachers hired to work in the reconfigured city schools cannot be laid off at the end of the current school year or in June 2020. This means that, if the referendum fails, any cuts that are made would fall disproportionately on the suburban areas of the district.

David Stockman, a Christina parent and a member of the district’s Citizens Budget Oversight Committee, says some suburban residents might see the threat of significant cuts in their schools as “a scare tactic.” But, he says, “that’s just the reality of the situation.”

At the same time, Stockman is concerned about how residents in the Wilmington portion of the district will view the referendum. “They might not feel they have as much at stake” because their schools are largely insulated from cuts, so they might be less likely to vote, he says.

And, he adds, there are always people “who have a beef with the district.”

Depending on the length of those memories, those beefs could include hostility to busing for desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s, to controversies over poor management and misuse of funds more than a decade ago, to the more recent criticisms of the district over student performance on the state’s annual assessments. The administration of former Gov. Jack Markell put a “priority schools” label on low-performing Christina schools in Wilmington. Gov. John Carney last month said Christina’s schools were “the worst performing in the state – by a lot.”

Baumbach, however, questions the state’s reliance on standardized tests to measure the performance of school systems. “It’s using a single measure for a very complex setup,” he says.

Griffin says he hasn’t heard much this year about Christina’s past history, but he acknowledges that “people in this district have very long memories.”

No matter, Stockman says. “I can’t figure out how voting ‘no’ helps. It doesn’t improve the situation in any way. If anything, it makes it worse.”

As real as the fear of budget cuts might be, it’s better that the district focuses on “vision-driven motivation,” Baumbach says. “We want to keep our great teachers. We want to improve our high schools. These are the positive things that people should be voting for.”

Griffin too speaks of wanting to “attract and retain great students and great teachers.” And he points out that the district has experienced plenty of change, with Gregg in his second year as superintendent, three of seven board members having served for less than two years, and significant turnover in administrators in the last three years. “We have a group of people who understand the district’s history,” he says, “but our focus is on looking forward.”

Operating within what Gregg calls “a tight window of time,” the district is taking all the usual steps to get out its message. Its website has a special section devoted to the referendum, complete with frequently asked questions, a list of polling places and a calculator to determine the impact of the tax increase on each property in the district. Ten informational sessions or special events have already been held; a final presentation is on Monday night’s agenda for the Newark City Council. A special mailer is also being sent to all district residents. District officials are also contacting leaders of area charter schools, asking them to convey information about the referendum to the parents of their students.

Stockman, a University of Delaware economics professor who has lived in the district for 18 years, says he believes the district is pointed in the right direction. He says his twin sons have thrived in the Cambridge Program, an option for academically talented ninth and tenth-graders offered only at Newark High School, and with the success his youngest son, a fifth-grader at Downes Elementary, has enjoyed in the school’s dual-language immersion program. “It’s amazing to hear them speak Chinese,” he says.

Gregg describes himself as “cautiously optimistic” that the referendum will pass, while backers like Stockman say a yes vote signifies support not only for students but for both the city and suburban portions of the district.

“Strong public schools are the foundation of a strong community and it’s our responsibility to keep them strong,” Stockman says. “Educating kids takes money, and it comes from us. It’s so fundamental and basic.”

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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