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Christina School District faces crucial referendum vote

Delaware Public Media

School referendums are difficult enough to pass under normal conditions.  But during a global pandemic that’s forced schools to remote learning and severely damaged the economy, getting voters to approve one now seems an almost impossible task.

But it’s one the Christina School District faces with voters heading to the polls Tuesday to decide if they will back a tax increase need to stave off drastic cuts.

This week, contributor Larry Nagengast digs into what the referendum is seeking, why it’s needed and what will happen if it come up short.

By any rational standard, this is not a good time for a school district to be asking its residents to approve a significant tax increase.

Statewide, the unemployment rate stood at 14.3 percent in April and the May numbers, when released, are expected to be higher. School buildings have been closed for three months, with teachers and students alike struggling with a coronavirus pandemic-driven transition to online learning. Thanks to the pandemic, a tightening of state funding for schools would not be surprising. A recent court ruling that the state’s property tax system is unconstitutional adds one more element of confusion.

"People who haven't been following the district can't believe that we have the nerve to ask for more money now." Keeley Powell, Christina School Board vice president.

Within the Christina School District itself, the school board has experienced significant turnover in the past year, its superintendent is retiring at the end of the month and the school board did not renew the contracts of the district’s top administrators. A commission created to improve education is looking at proposals that could result in the district’s restructuring – or elimination – in a couple of years.

“This was the perfect storm,” Christina Superintendent Richard Gregg says.

“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, with a complete economic tragedy. People who haven’t been following the district can’t believe that we have the nerve to ask for more money now,” says Keeley Powell, the school board’s vice president.

But the district has no choice. The money raised from a successful referendum four years ago has run out. A failed referendum last year resulted in some $9 million in budget reductions, “cutting what some considered the fat in the district,” parent John Shipman says.

This time, Shipman says, if the referendum on June 9 fails, “the cuts are so tough, they’re draconian.”

“It would be dismal. It’s dire,” says Gregg, who is leaving at the end of the month after three years on the job, and 39 overall as an educator.

What does dire mean?

Another $10 million in budget reductions. No sports. No program for gifted and talented children. No extracurricular or cocurricular activities. The end of a popular dual-language Chinese immersion program. No more Montessori Academy. No district-wide strings program. No instrumental music in elementary schools. No instructional coaches and curriculum specialists in key subject areas. The elimination of 67 jobs, most of them teachers.

"It's insane to have a referendum now, but that's what our system demands. You have to do your begathon every few years." State Rep. Paul Baumbach (D-Newark)

“I can’t imagine what it would be like,” Gregg says. “I’ve never been in a school that didn’t have the extracurricular and cocurricular activities for kids to engage in.”

“The problem is structural,” says Mary Schorse, co-chair of Friends of Christina, a nonprofit that aims to build support for the school district. Many residents, she explains, don’t understand that the current property tax system, which relies on property values based on data from 1984, results in all school districts in the state having to seek voter approval for tax increases every couple of years.

“It’s insane to have a referendum now, but that’s what our system demands,” says state Rep. Paul Baumbach, a Newark Democrat. “You have to do your begathon every few years. Four years ago they passed a referendum to raise enough money to last two years. That has run out.”

The referendum (see related story) would prevent those planned cuts from being implemented, and would provide funding to keep the district operating for three years. It also asks for funding for a new English Language Arts curriculum for the district’s elementary schools. Two separate questions seek approval to issue bonds to pay for renovations and improvements at six district schools.

In essence, Powell says, passing the referendum would bring the district’s programming back to where it was during the 2018-19 school year, before the 2019 referendum failed. “We want to restore it to what it would have been,” she says, “but not with the exact same people, the exact same jobs.”

Parents interviewed say the district did a pretty good job with last year’s budget cuts, doing the best it could to minimize impacts in the classrooms.

“As far as we knew, everything was fine, aside from the principal saying she didn’t have enough money in her budget,” parent Rebecca Kalmbach said. “But, as a teacher [in the Appoquinimink School District], I’m used to hearing principals say they don’t have enough money in their budgets.”

"These are not scare tactics. These cuts are very real." - Jim Simmons, Delaware Department of Education director of innovation and improvement

The biggest impact during the current school year , Gregg said, came in the primary grades, where the cuts resulted in larger class sizes.

This year, if the referendum fails, supporters say the cuts will be so deep that they cannot be concealed.

“No sports, no marching band, no yearbook, no gifted and talented program – all the things that make school enjoyable would be lost. All that would be left is the core curriculum,” Shipman says.

Not only do these programs make school enjoyable, he notes, but they also provide motivation to youths whose strong suit isn’t academics. Recalling his own days as a high school athlete, Shipman adds, “I knew plenty of kids who behaved well or studied harder because they would have gotten kicked off the team if they didn’t.”

And, Kalmbach says, when teachers notice a student struggling, “sometimes they can reach out to a coach, or to the band director, to find out more about their motivation.”

Kalmbach and Shipman are among a group of parents concerned that the budget cuts will eliminate the district’s dual-language Chinese immersion program, a statewide innovation promoted by former Gov. Jack Markell and a staple at Downes Elementary since 2013. Both have children enrolled in the program at Downes, and Kalmbach’s son is now finishing sixth grade in the program at Shue-Medill Middle School.

“Many parents feel betrayed. We were asked to sign a letter of commitment when we enrolled our children, and it feels like the rug is being pulled out from under us,” he says. The program drives children to excel because they are learning core subjects like math in Chinese. “They really have to think through the concept.”

While the referendum isn’t lacking for supporters, the district’s baggage, some of it carried for more than a generation, and the state’s outmoded property tax system constitute substantial obstacles to passage.

The baggage starts with the geographic division of the district. With the start of court-ordered desegregation in 1978, Christina served two distinct areas – a portion of the city of Wilmington and a much larger suburban area stretching from Newark to Christiana, Bear and Glasgow. Some residents of the suburban portion of the district still harbor resentment at their children having been bused to city schools for three years, into the mid-1990s. Residents of the district’s city sector still see their high school students bused to suburban schools. While mandated busing may have ended for the elementary grades, educational inequities persisted, with largely low-income, minority students in Wilmington schools performing well below statewide norms. That led last year to a state-district partnership aimed at improving Wilmington schools. Terms of that agreement provided the city schools with extra state funding and exempted those schools from budget cuts – both last year and for the coming year, according to Jim Simmons, director of innovation and improvement for the state Department of Education and the department’s prime liaison with Christina.

Meanwhile, the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity, created by the state last year, is starting to examine concepts for reorganizing school districts in New Castle County. Most of the ideas already mentioned would eliminate Christina’s city-suburb configuration and some would eliminate the district altogether.

The baggage also includes episodes of financial mismanagement some 15 years ago, which led to the state providing loans to bail out the district. While the money was repaid, since then the school board has been plagued by disputes – not only squabbles between members but also in seeing eye to eye with the administrators it has hired to run the district.

“I’m the sixth or seventh superintendent in 10 years. The typical turnover for a superintendent is three to five years. There’s something else going on here,” Gregg says.

The board itself has undergone significant turnover – with five of its seven members serving their first terms, says Powell, who joined the board last year.

She says it’s time to put those old issues to rest. Today’s Christina students weren’t in school when those troubles occurred, and the adults responsible for the problems are no longer working in the district, she says.

Even more turnover is coming within the district administration.

"This is the only tax that people can vote on, and they can vote 'no.' They love that." - Mary Schorse, co-chair of Friends of Christina

“I respect the work that has been done, but I’m in favor of large-scale cultural change,” Powell says. “Right now, we’re in a ‘reset mentality.’”

“It’s a fresh start. That’s what you want,” says Baumbach, the Newark legislator.

The biggest step in that direction for the board was its desire to name Gregg’s successor before the referendum, and it did so on Thursday night, unanimously choosing Dan Shelton, superintendent of the Capital School District in Dover for the past four years. It’s a genuine homecoming for Shelton, who previously spent 17 years as a teacher and principal in Christina. His parents and grandfather graduated from Newark High School and his children attend Maclary Elementary in the district.

Next up is the hiring of successors to the administrators whose contracts the board decided not to renew – including the leaders of the district’s finance and human resources offices. It’s essential that those two positions be filled by July 1, Simmons says, but others say it’s important that the new superintendent have the freedom to select his/her own leadership team, including an assistant superintendent and leaders in other departments within the district office. With just three weeks remaining in the month, and a cloudy budget picture if the referendum does not pass, it’s unclear how that will play out.

But the biggest stumbling block of all might be the referendum system itself.

“We have a terrible system. We, as legislators, have failed time after time to fix it,” Baumbach says.

The problem with the system is that it relies on outdated property values, with assessments in New Castle County based on what properties were worth in 1984. The practical impact of that system is that school costs – like almost everything else – increase with inflation – but assessed values, the base used for setting property tax rates, remain stable.

In most other states, says parent Jim Berry, an associate professor of economics at the University of Delaware, school boards have the authority to set tax rates at levels to maintain specified service levels but in Delaware, districts must go to referendum “over and over again” when they need more money to keep the schools running – typically every three years or so.

“This is the only tax that people can vote on, and they can vote ‘no.’ They love that,” says Schorse, the Friends of Christina leader. For one segment of the population, she says, “it doesn’t matter” if property values go down because the quality of the local school system declines.

State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, a Wilmington Democrat whose district includes some of Christina’s city territory, says there’s reason for optimism about the referendum passing, if only because the transition to online learning during the pandemic has made parents see what teachers go through every day. “They’re sympathetic, now that they see what educators endure on a daily basis,” she says.

If the referendum doesn’t pass, Shipman says, “you’re guaranteed that it won’t get better.”

And, Kalmbach adds, there’s potential for things getting worse. “Parents will look for other options. We’ll lose people to other districts. Parents with resources will leave, and we’ll have a higher percentage of kids who have more issues,” she says.

Simmons, the Department of Education administrator, knows there’s a tendency for the public to think that school officials are overstating the impact of a failed referendum as a way of gaining support. That’s not the case here, he says.

“The board needs to balance its budget. They had to make cuts last year. This is the year after a failed referendum,” he says. “These are not scare tactics. These cuts are very real.”

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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