On 2nd shot, voters approve Colonial School District tax hike

Dozens of teaching and other jobs will be saved and an array of programs will be spared in the Colonial School District after voters approved a property tax increase Tuesday, just three months after rejecting one.

Tuesday’s turnout of 16.2 percent was low for a Delaware general election but well above average for a school referendum.  The Feb. 28 vote drew just 8.6 percent of Colonial voters to the polls. The average for a Delaware referendum over the last five years is 11.8 percent, a WHYY analysis in April found.

Colonial, which roughly encompasses the area south of Wilmington to New Castle, is Delaware’s fourth-largest school districts with nearly 10,000 students.

District leaders had threatened to cut spending by $4 million in the 2017-18 school year, including 175 teaching and other jobs, if their second attempt to pass a referendum this year failed.  In addition, they planned to eliminate several programs, including band and choral festivals and all sports except high school varsity teams. Employees had received tentative layoff notices in mid-May to meet a state-imposed deadline for notification.

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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.

For Tuesday’s vote, Colonial scaled back its request, and sought $10.9 million a year, to be phased in over two years. The average homeowner will pay an additional $23 a year in school property taxes, the district said.

After losing the February vote, Colonial had instituted a hiring, spending and travel freeze, officials said.  

“This is a victory for our students and dedicated staff,” Superintendent Dusty Blakey said while thanking voters in a written statement after the victory was assured.

With state education cuts still pending, including about $3.5 million to Colonial as part of Gov. John Carney’s budget proposal, Blakey says he’s not sure how many layoff notices will be rescinded, but said he hopes “most” will be.

“Starting as soon as possible we will begin the process of making certain our district is whole again,” his statement said. “We know our teachers and support staff are the backbone of our district.”

Carney’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 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.

Blakey said last week that Colonial’s school board would review that option — which would let the district recoup up to $2 million — at the appropriate time.


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