After lawyers representing disadvantaged students and Delaware’s three counties failed to negotiate a settlement in a suit challenging how the counties assess real estate for tax purposes, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster issued an order Monday setting a trial on March 29-30 of next year.
Laster’s order follows a court hearing Friday during which the judge said he thought the counties were “manufacturing excuses” to delay a resolution to the suit. The order includes a detailed schedule of activities required before the trial.
In May, Laster issued a ruling that found that the methods the counties use to determine property values for tax purposes violated both state law and the state Constitution.
Lawyers for the counties and for the plaintiffs – Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the NAACP Delaware State Conference – appear to agree that the resolution will require a reassessment of property values in all three counties but they have yet to agree on how or when a reassessment would be carried out.
Laster found in May that the values currently used for assessments are out of date, and therefore inequitable. Reassessments were last conducted in Kent County in 1987, in New Castle County in 1983 and in Sussex County in 1974. For properties built or improved since those dates, the counties have tried to estimate what their values would have been in the year the last assessment was conducted.
At Friday’s hearing, attorneys for the counties discussed plans prepared by their consultants to conduct reassessments over a four-year period, but they told the judge that they did not want to be held to the timelines included in those plans.
The counties also said they wanted to explore options not spelled out in the consultants’ plans and they cited the need for “state involvement” in any resolution, most likely meaning that they want the state to pick up some or all of the costs of reassessment.
Last month, in a separate phase of the suit, Governor John Carney committed to increases in state funding totaling more than $130 million above current levels for the education of low-income students, English language learners and children in kindergarten through third grade with special learning needs through the 2024-2025 school year. That funding would have to be approved next year by the General Assembly.
A spokesperson for ACLU Delaware, which is providing legal support to the plaintiffs, questioned whether the state would be willing to pick up the tab for a reassessment in addition to the commitment the governor has already made to increase education funding.