Solutions floated to mitigate ‘cold realities’ of Delaware school budget cuts

Newsworks | by Cris Barrish

Proms, finals and graduations are dominating the final days of the school year, but most eyes in Delaware’s academic circles are focused on Dover. One month from now state lawmakers will decide the fate of Gov. John Carney’s proposed $37 million in cuts to K-12 education.

Right now, though, the state’s school community is in turmoil — a state of uncertainty and fear that may or may not be alleviated when the General Assembly fulfills its statutory obligation to pass a balanced budget by June 30.

Districts have given tentative layoff notices to hundreds of teachers, including cherished reading specialists, and other employees. They plan to let hundreds of other open positions go unfilled.

Fewer dollars will be allocated to academic programs and initiatives in the arts and sports, such as renovations to one school’s running track.

Meanwhile, advocates for struggling schools in Wilmington who have called for more funding to help low-income students perform better lament that their pleas are being ignored.

While schools from Talleyville to Rehoboth Beach are figuring out ways to do with less, the governor’s office and lawmakers have floated a flurry of proposals to mitigate the pain, or even restore all of the dollars.

All face significant obstacles, however. Among the plans:

  • Carney’s budget has a controversial provision lets districts claw back their proportional share of $22 million of the proposed cuts by letting school boards levy a one-time, so-called “match tax” without taking the usual step of asking voters to approve the increases in a referendum. School board members and superintendents fear such a move would alienate voters when they must go to referendum for major construction projects and other initiatives.
  • A bill drafted by Rep. Earl Jaques but not yet introduced would, among other provisions, give school boards the power to levy limited tax increases without referendum every two years – for operating expenses only. Those increases would generally be tied to the federal Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, which last year increased 2.1 percent.
  • A bill sponsored by Rep. John Kowalko would increase the annual fee Delaware charges to limited liability companies from $300 to $350. With about 850,000 such entities registered in corporate friendly Delaware, that could raise $42.5 million – more than enough to offset the $37 million slated to be slashed. But Kowalko’s bill, introduced two months ago, is opposed by the administration and has not even had a committee hearing. Secretary of State Jeffrey W. Bullock said those fees were increased a few years ago, “so we think it’s too soon to go back to that source right now.
  • The Delaware School Boards Association recently asked lawmakers to authorize a special “statewide property tax … dedicated to education.” Carney said in an interview that the proposal is worth consideration but doesn’t stand a chance of approval with so little time left until June 30.
  • Beyond the short-term solutions suggested to solve next year’s cash-crunch, Sen. Harris McDowell, co-chair of the legislative Joint Finance Committee, echoed others in saying it’s time to provide for a sustainable long-term source of school and government funding by reassessing properties in all three Delaware counties. It’s been at least 30 years since any Delaware county did a reassessment. A Chancery Court judge’s ruling this week in a lawsuit over the Red Clay school district’s unconstitutional 2015 referendum also called for reassessments “to fix a dysfunctional system.”
  • McDowell and other lawmakers and academic observers also said it’s long past time to save millions of dollars a year by consolidate school districts and sharing services such as purchasing and administrators in America’s second smallest state. Delaware has 19 districts serving 137,000 public school students. Fairfax County School District in Virginia, by contrast, serves 188,000 students.

Schools costs state $1.4 billion a year

Carney says he doesn’t want to cut funding to schools, but said school boards need to shoulder some of the “shared sacrifice” he has called for to balance the $4.1 billion budget for fiscal 2018 that now has a projected deficit of nearly $400 million.

The governor has proposed a mix of spending cuts and revenue enhancements, including higher state income tax rates for residents at all income levels, to reach a balanced budget, which is required by state law. The biggest revenue boost under Carney’s plan – about $116 million — would come from higher fees on big companies incorporated in Delaware.

Even with the $37 million in cuts Carney proposed, K-12 education would cost the state $1.4 billion next year – about one-third of Delaware’s $4.1 billion general fund budget. In addition, school districts – through property taxes paid by residents and businesses – and the federal government contribute roughly $600 million to educate the137,000 students and pay about 19,500 teachers and other employees.

Carney, a former state finance secretary, lieutenant governor and congressman, told WHYY this month he welcomes ideas to provide for a sustainable source of money to children can have get a top-notch education in Delaware. The immediate challenge, though, is filling the funding hole he inherited upon taking office in January, Carney said.

So he wants Delaware’s school districts to whittle around the edges to save $15 million from the direct support they receive, and to step up to the plate and levy the match tax to recoup the other $22 million he wants to cut.

Pointing out that over the years school officials have spoken to him about their desire to be able to raise taxes without referendum, he said he’s surprised at their reluctance to do so when given the chance.

“It’s curious that they are not willing to take on the responsibility to do that with respect to this particular shift, which in the scheme of things is a relatively small amount of money — $22 million spread across 19 districts,” Carney said.

‘Cold reality’ of Carney’s cuts

But with districts and boards – at least for now – saying they are unwilling to consider the match tax, leaders are preparing for fewer teachers, reduced programming and larger class sizes.

Matt Burrows, the superintendent of Delaware’s Appoquinimink School District and president of the Delaware School Chiefs Association, didn’t try to sugarcoat the message he delivered to staff and parents earlier this month.

“Teaching staff,” Burrows wrote, “are coming face-to-face with the cold reality of the governor’s proposed funding cuts to education.”

Burrow’s two-page letter detailed a series of layoffs, program eliminations and reductions, and other measures the rapidly growing southern New Castle County district is prepared to make offset the $3.1 million cuts in state aid under Carney’s budget.

Among the potential programs cuts in Appoquinimink are elementary reading, Spanish and world language specialists, photography and textiles programs, and a special math initiative for 9th graders.

Burrows’ district followed up with pink slips to 22 teachers to meet a May 15 deadline to inform educators that they are on the chopping block. Fourteen teacher aide jobs would be eliminated too.

Other districts are doing the same as Appoquinimink, sending out layoff notices, cutting or reducing programs, or saving through attrition. Some, like Brandywine, are trying to make all the cuts by not filling vacant jobs.

Elizabeth Paige, president of the Christina school board, has lamented the fact that the district is eliminating 77 teaching posts, including layoffs to more than 40. She’s reluctant to implement the match tax but is also “tired of the term ‘shared sacrifice.'”

In Paige’s view, “The responsibility should lie in [the state capital of] Dover, not the school boards. We did not create the structural deficit so I’m open to any creative solutions they can come up with so education doesn’t suffer.”

When she sees residents at meetings, the grocery store or sports events, Paige said she’s been told: “‘You raised taxes and you are going to raise it again.’ I explain the situation and there’s a lot of confusion and angst. And it’s all warranted.”

Educators, said Paige, “are worried about what their class sizes are going to look like next year, and that their peers won’t be there next year. It’s not a good situation.”

‘Filling potholes, constantly patching’

Rep. Jaques, who chairs the House Education Committee, said his idea of a school board-imposed tax tied to the Consumer Price Index is worthy of consideration.

A referendum costs about $40,000, state election officials said, so why not spend that money in the classroom, rather than on asking voters for more money, Jaques said. In a jab at school boards, Jacques also said members “are elected but don’t want to be held accountable. We as legislators are held accountable.”

Jaques also said “it’s ludicrous” to think education should not absorb any of the cuts the state must make if lawmakers and the governor don’t solve the problem through further tax and fee increases.

“You can’t just forget one-third of the budget,” he said. “But we’re trying to make the cuts that don’t hurt children. So we’re exploring every opportunity we can. But we’re going to have a budget on June 30 and there will be winners and losers.”

Many observers, however, said the time has to come to stop the annual, painstaking exercise Delaware seemingly undertakes every year, putting Band-Aids on the state’s structural funding problems instead of looking for serious, sustainable solutions.

“What we really need is for all the adults in the room, the people at the state and local level, to come together and come to some kind of feasible, reasonable remedy,” said Frederika Jennfer, outgoing president of the Delaware State Education Association.

“Instead we’ve been filling potholes, constantly patching. This could actually be the crisis that forces people to some kind of conversation that nobody has been willing to have.”

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