In Delaware, hotly debated school referendum squeaks through

(<a href=Chalk board photo via ShutterStock)" title="l_christina-piggy-bank-169" width="640" height="360"/>

(Chalk board photo via ShutterStock)

Following two failed attempts last year, voters in Delaware’s second-largest school district appear to have approved a long debated tax hike.

The results have not yet been certified, but initial returns suggest residents of the Christina School District—which covers Newark and a largely low-income swath of Wilmington—approved the modest tax increase by a scant 145 votes. According to the unofficial tally, 6,770 (50.5%) voted for the hike and 6,625 (49.5%) voted against.

With Wednesday’s results, school taxes for district residents will climb 30 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

The district estimates that bump will pour an extra $16.2 million into its coffers and cost the average homeowner about $192 a year. Some of that will go toward rehiring teachers cut loose when the district’s referendum failed last year. District leaders are also vowing to set aside $1 million to improve school climate and discipline.

Perhaps just as important, the victory offered hope to a long-struggling district that has been dogged by past financial failings and saddled with a woeful reputation.

“Now we can talk about the future instead of the past,” said Robert Andrzejewski, Christina’s interim superintendent, who serenaded supporters with a cathartic version of the song “Let it Go” from the film “Frozen” after results were announced.

The district hired Andrzejewski out of semi-retirement last October with an eye toward the coming referendum. Andrzejewski once ran the neighboring Red Clay Consolidated School District and is long-time fixture on the local education scene. Many credited Wednesday’s result to Andrzejewski’s deep connections and upbeat vibe.

“[The voters] wanted hope and he gave them that,” said Yvonne Johnson, past president of the Delaware PTA and a referendum supporter. “He’s an energy spreader. He just is.”

Said Christina board president Harrie Ellen Minnehan of the referendum triumph, “It really validates the decision to hire [Andrzejewski]. He brought an energy and an enthusiasm that we needed.”

Christina was also able to score major political endorsements, including some from unlikely corners.

Local legislators such as Senator David Sokola, D-Newark, Senator Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, and Representative John Kowalko, D-Newark, all lined up behind the referendum.

So too did Governor Jack Markell, who offered a video endorsement in advance of the vote. Markell’s administration has clashed before with Christina leadership, most recently over how to turn around three of the district’s lowest performing schools. The two sides joined forces, however, for a referendum district officials characterized as critical to Christina’s fiscal future.

“Governor Markell’s support was a game changer,” said Andrzejewski.

Another potential factor:  The district didn’t seek as steep a tax hike as it had in prior referenda.

Last May, the district asked voters to approve a scheme that would have raised taxes by 28 cents per $100 in 2015, with hikes of 5 cents and 4 cents to follow in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Last February, the ask was even bigger: 42 cents in 2015 followed by 20 cents in 2016 and another 5 cents in 2017.

The narrow victory came amid brisk voter turnout.

On Wednesday, 13,395 Christina residents cast ballots, up from 11,042 votes last May and 8,195 last February. During the February election, just 2,119 voters supported a tax bump while 6,076 voted against it.

While opposition numbers have remained fairly stable over the past year, district leaders and volunteers have redoubled outreach efforts. After closing the gap significantly in May’s election, referendum backers were able to finally secure the majority they needed on Wednesday.

The news wasn’t as happy for the nearby Brandywine School District, which straddles Wilmington and the surrounding suburbs. There, residents shot down a permanent 28-cent tax increase paired with a temporary, five-cent hike to help the district build six turf athletic fields. Residents voted 3,892-3,729 against the referendum.

Further down state, voters in Cape Henlopen School District – which stretches to the Delaware shore – overwhelmingly approved a levy to support school construction and renovation.

The story of the evening, though, was Christina, whose whisker-thin win helped stave off what district officials described as an impending fiscal calamity. After last May’s failed referendum, the district sliced its operating budget by $9 million and axed nearly 80 teachers.

Much of the money secured Wednesday will go toward restoring services and staffing levels. The district should now be able to meet its budgetary needs for at least the next two years, said Andrzejewski.

Even if another funding fight lurks in the distance, it was of little concern Wednesday to jubilant referendum supporters gathered at George V. Kirk Middle School. Amid hugs, cheers, and tears, board president Harrie Ellen Minnehan let out a sigh.

“I just feel relieved,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Yvonne Johnson as president of the Delaware PTA. She is the former president of the Delware PTA.

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