The nature of public education funding in the State of Delaware sees all 16 traditional public school districts receive the majority of funding (anywhere from 51% to 70% depending on the District) from State appropriated education funds. These funds are broken down largely in to two main categories: Operating and Capital. Operating funds are exactly as they sound: funds for salaries, transportation, energy, utilities, supplies, etc. Capital funds are for major building improvements, renovations, construction projects. The State portions of each funding type must be matched by local property tax payers that reside in each district. If District A gets 64% of its funds from the State, the District’s property tax payers provide the remaining 46%.
We all know that operating expenses in public service agencies, like school districts, only go one way: up. Everything gets more expensive, more students enroll, new technologies, a seemingly infinite number of variables contribute to rising costs in our public school districts. In order for our Districts to keep up with rising operating costs, Delaware code mandates that District residents must commit a majority vote in the affirmative to raise their own property taxes to permit their local schools to continue operating at their current levels. It’s a cyclical process called an Operating Referendum and it occurs in all 16 traditional school districts every 3-5 years. Over the last few years as I was writing for Delaware Liberal, I chronicled Christina School District’s [insanely] harrowing journey through not 1, not 2, but 3 Operating Referendum attempts in order to describe what our students, parents, educators, principals, school staff, and community are required to go through every 3-5 years just to keep schools running.
Districts also go through capital referendum cycles. These are usually more infrequent as they pertain to major renovations, upgrades, or construction projects. It’s a completely different process that raises local funds from property taxes on the condition of a majority vote in support from District residents to match pledged State funds for the project(s).
When both are needed, Districts will often run them simultaneously because more often than not, they are connected. Want to expand some of the District’s best programs? We’re going need more teachers and have to fix up and/or expand some of our schools for that. Operating + Capital.
And that brings us to next Tuesday, February 28, 2017. Colonial School District is asking its residents to approve a 39.4 cents per $100 assessed property value increase in their property taxes phased in over 2 years. There are both operating and capital components to that ask.
Operating Rate Increase (per $100 Assessed Property Value):
- Year 1: 27 cents
- Year 2: 11 cents
Capital Improvements Request (per $100 Assessed Property Value):
Year 1: 1.4 cents
Let’s keep in mind that ASSESSED property value DOES NOT equal market value of the property. Assessed value is approximately 1/3 of what the property value would be at market price if you were to list it for sale today and its only purpose is for tax collection. ($180,000 townhome market price, ~$60,000 Assessed value). Colonial put together a handy calculator right on their website to help you figure out the exact assessed value of your property.
Colonial has tagged the referendum with a theme of “WE invest”, pitching it as an investment in our collective future, and they are absolutely spot on. This is a discussion I had many times over during Christina’s campaigns, funding schools is an investment. You’re not looking for short-term profit, we’re looking for long term benefits. Benefits that 12-20 years down the road will be realized in the form of a highly skilled students that become our next-generation workforce, service providers, engineers, entrepreneurs, skilled tradespeople, and more. 20 years from now as I’m pushing 60 years old, the children currently in our public schools will be out in society working, providing the services and goods that school students that graduated years ago are providing right now. It’s a continual investment.
So what does Colonial want to use that increased revenue for? Let’s start with the shortest of the lists. The capital improvements request of a 1.4 cent increase per $100 assessed value will be utilized to renovate and improve the secured entrances to all District schools to be phased in over 3 years. Short, simple, necessary.
On the Operating side, do the District and its staff justice (and yourself a favor) and look at the materials they’ve pulled together and all the work they’ve been doing over the last several weeks. And they’ve been doing a lot of hard work on this campaign in addition to their day-to-day duties. I attended a Referendum public forum at George Read Middle School in the beginning of the month and I saw first hand how much effort is being poured in at all levels of the District: Students, Educators, District Admin, Building Admin, facilities, secretarial, and community. Good questions and an honest discussion were facilitated by the District.
The most recent Districtwide Newsletter, The Colonial Reporter, can be found here: http://www.colonialschooldistrict.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/reportersprint2017.pdf
A Referendum information site that is full of useful and helpful information is right on the Colonial’s website: http://www.colonialschooldistrict.org/vote/
Notably, they put together a 30-slide PowerPoint presentation that lays out some of the details of the referendum, why it is needed, what it will do and what will happen should it fail to pass. And for me, it’s full of some of my favorite things: data!
In short, the additional revenue generated by a successful operating referendum will support:
- The expansion of Colonial’s Full-Day Preschool Program which currently has a lengthy wait list.
- Refreshing, upgrading and acquiring additional technology and technology support services for students.
- And most interesting to me, elementary school wellness centers.
What’s an elementary school wellness center you ask? I’ll let the slide from Colonial’s presentation explain it at a high level:
This is a wonderful idea. We know that too large a number of our students have little or no access to basic medical and mental health care at home, and that can be for a variety of reasons, but the point is their access is non-existent or restricted. Here, Colonial is proposing opening and staffing their own basic-level medical and mental health clinics right in their elementary schools. Colonial’s elementary population in the 2016-17 school year is ~5,000 students in a District with ~10,000 students total. These Wellness Centers would provide care to 50% of Colonial’s students early on in their education careers with the aim of reducing their healthcare needs over the long term and instilling the value of proper preventative care early on in our children. Even though this is a care provider type proposal, the educational opportunities are here too. Learning about how basic healthcare facilities work right in your own school. Brilliant.
Rounding out the list of Operating revenue needs are:
The groundwork and preparation for redesigning the District’s 3 middle schools into themed schools, Science, Tech, and Medical at McCullough, Agri-science and Culinary at George Read, and Performing Arts & Technology at Gunning Bedford. There are designated student-led programs designed and deployed at each of the middle schools. They’re popular. They’re in demand, and the District wants to grow them. They can begin to figure out how to do exactly that with a passed Referendum on February 28th.
The closure of a structural deficit in Colonial’s budget created by ever-increasing costs coupled to a fixed, flat revenue stream. This is probably the component of the referendum that’s stated in the most plain way: It keeps the District functioning the way it has been since 2013-14. All of the programs, initiatives, personnel, services, everything that’s been with the District in the last 3-4 years gets to stay. The items I wrote about above are beyond just keeping things ‘as they are now’.
I’ve looked at the last 6 budgets along with many financial documents and statements for the District, this referendum is warranted at this time and Colonial’s asking amount is appropriate for their needs. Their financial ship is running straight and true and I commend their Chief Financial Officer Emily Falcon for ensuring it is that way, if you have read any of my other posts on school funding in Delaware you know how complex the system is to navigate.
Of course, the first thing everyone points to when it comes to school’s in tight financial situations is the top-heavy administrator positions. Not gonna happen here folks, so let’s get this out of the way right now: The District is not top heavy at the District administration level:
It is not top heavy with non-teaching positions at the school level:
Their teaching corps continues to grow:
Their enrollment has been relatively steady and increased for the 2016-17 year:
Their funds are being spent where they should be:
And the requested increases are targeted for the right places in reasonable amounts:
The District’s operating expenses will eclipse their their revenue without a successful referendum:
Full disclosure, I am not a Colonial School District resident, my parents and sister are, but if I were I would be voting FOR the additional taxes to support both the Operating and Capital initiatives. Voting to raise your own taxes seems like an oxymoron but consider what you are being asked by a school district. Are you willing to continue to invest in the system that provided you with the opportunities you had so that stronger, broader, deeper opportunities can be offered to the children who will be running the entire show 10, 15, 20 years down the road. Colonial has laid out a pretty direct plan here, it’s well explained, it offers a clear vision for the direction the District wants to continue going for its growing student population, Colonial is attracting new students and they want to attract even more.
If you live in or know people who live in Colonial School District, it’s quite important that you encourage them to go out and vote FOR the Operating and FOR the Capital requests on the ballot next Tuesday February 28th.
Who can vote: Any resident of Colonial School District who is at least 18 years of age, has proof of identity and address. You don’t have to own property, you don’t have to be registered to vote. For complete information on voting eligibility and rules you can go this section of Colonial’s website.
Between now and next Tuesday I’ll be writing a bit more about Colonial’s referendum, which by the way is closely followed by Indian River’s second attempt at an operating referendum passage.