Threatening major cuts, Delaware’s Colonial School District takes 2nd shot at tax hike

(Bigstock)

(Bigstock)

Colonial School District is making its second bid to pass a referendum Tuesday and threatens massive layoffs and program cuts.

Thwarted by voters three months ago in its bid to raise property taxes, Colonial School District is making its second bid to pass a referendum Tuesday that threatens massive layoffs and program cuts should it fail.

Voting will be held from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 16 schools and community centers in the district, which roughly encompasses the area south of Wilmington to New Castle. All adults who live in the district can cast ballots, even if they are not a registered voter. A list of polling places and other information can be found here

Delaware’s fourth-largest district with nearly 10,000 students, Colonial had sought additional funds on Feb. 28 in two separate votes. One would have paid for expanded preschool, technology upgrades and other improvements. The other would have paid for capital projects such as more secure entrances for every school. Both failed by at least 500 votes out of about 5,000 cast.

Turnout for the vote was 8.5 percent of the district’s 59,200 registered voters. That figure is well below the statewide average of 11.8 percent turnout, according to an April analysis by WHYY of the 39 Delaware school tax referendums over the last five years.

Colonial has scaled back its request, and is now seeking $10.9 million a year, to be phased in over two years. Should it pass, the average homeowner in the district would pay an additional $23 a year in school property taxes, according to a news release the district sent out last week. The district has promoted its request through postcards to every resident, events such as pep rallies at schools, and media advertisements that detail the benefits if it passes and impending cuts should it fail.

After losing the February vote, Colonial instituted a hiring, spending and travel freeze, spokeswoman Lauren Wilson wrote in a news release.  Should voters reject the June referendum, an April news release said, Colonial “is preparing to implement over $4 million in cuts for the 2017-2018 school year.” 

The district is promoting the referendum on its Facebook page and holding pep rallies and other events to galvanize supporters. The district also has warned that severe cuts would be implemented should voters again say no.

The district’s financial situation was made more precarious by Gov. John Carney’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018. That budget would cut statewide funding for Delaware’s 19 school districts by $37 million. Colonial would lose $3.5 million if those cuts are made, but Carney’s budget would let districts recoup up to $22 million of the $37 million by levying a so-called “match” tax without going to referendum. Superintendent Dusty Blakey said the Colonial school board would review that option at the appropriate time, if necessary.

But in case no more funding is available, Colonial is prepared to lay off 175 employees, including 93 teachers and 17 administrators and specialists who already have been sent tentative pink slips. Among the program cuts, band and choral festivals would be eliminated, all sports would be eliminated except for high school varsity teams, and academic and social clubs would be reduced.

 Colonial Superintendent Dusty Blakey, whose salary is about $176,000 annually,  stressed in an interview that shoudl voters reject the referendum a second time, the district will have no choice but to slash jobs and programs.

“This is really about keeping ourselves where we are and giving ourself a little bit of a cushion for growth,” Blakey said.

“But if the referendum doesn’t pass, we have no choice, We have to go with less than bare bones,” he said, adding that as a consequence class sizes also would grow.

The district already has abandoned plans — part of the February referendum but not this one — to construct more secure entrances for all schools, expand preschool, upgrade technology and make other improvements.

Voters who are interested in how the referendum would affect them can visit the district’s site and use the tax calculator to determine the amount of their increase.

 

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