As multiple school districts deal with fallout from failed referenda, state lawmakers are trying to make it easier for schools to raise taxes. But some administrators and school board members are not on board with the plan.
Indian River School District’s capital referendum failed for a second time this week after it and an operating budget request were rejected in February. The capital ask would have funded additional school buildings for a growing student population.
Superintendent Mark Steele says the district now needs to lease portable classrooms— a solution that will cut into its operating budget and affect the number of teachers it can hire. He adds the trailers will not solve overcrowding in hallways, cafeterias or specialized classrooms, like CTE or science.
Steele says the district may need to look at realigning feeder patterns and advancing another operating referendum sooner than expected.
“If this passed, I was thinking we may be able to alleviate another referendum for six to eight years. But now,” he said, “I think it’ll cut the time in half. I think we’ll have to come back in three years.”
Still, Steele says his board will not support state legislation that would allow districts to raise taxes for operating expenses a limited amount each year without a referendum. Steele says some will worry HB 129 would politicize school boards.
“Which means you’re going to have people run for boards based on the platform, ‘I will not increase taxes,’” he said. “You always run that risk of getting board members who are not as involved as they should be as board members, until the word tax comes up.”
Steele notes the bill would allow districts in good financial shape to keep up with inflation. He does support legislation seeking to limit school board terms to 3 years and pay members $100 per meeting. He calls school board membership a “thankless job.”
Indian River is not the only school district currently facing tough decisions after a failed referendum.
Christina school board member Elizabeth Paige says she can’t support HB 129 as written— because a two percent increase would not be enough. The bill caps a tax increase that does not require a referendum at the consumer price index or at two percent of the district’s current tax rate, whichever is higher.
“As much as referenda fail these days, if we’re able to automatically increase taxes without a referendum, and then go out for a referendum for even more additional funds, we’ll never get a referendum to pass,” she said. “And quite honestly, I think it lets Dover off the hook. It lets school boards be the bad guys.”
Paige thinks the state school funding formulas, which she says at times contradict Department of Education mandates, need to be rewritten.
She does not believe board members should be paid, as they would be under HB 134.
Rep. Earl Jaques, who is sponsoring the school district tax bill, says Delaware is one of only four states that does not allow districts to raise some revenue without voter approval.