State Representative Earl Jaques last year had introduced House Bill 129, which would have allowed the Boards of Education of the school districts in Delaware to annually raise local school taxes equal to the percentage change in the federal Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers or up to 2 percent — without a referendum. The bill states that a school district could still hold a referendum if officials wanted to raise the operating tax by more than 2% or if it wanted to raise funds for a capital infrastructure project.
Delaware is one of four states that ridiculously requires a school district to pass a referendum to raise property taxes to fund school operations. And to make the process even more insane, they schedule these referendums in low turnout off years and off months, which more often than not leads to the defeat of these referendums.
However, and unfortunately, Rep. Jaques struck his bill last week. The bill had failed to clear the House Education Committee last June before the end of the session, and at the time Jaques said that he would hold a series of committee hearing during the recess to review the school funding system. Last week, he said he was removing the bill from consideration because he thought the the measure had sparked a useful conversation of how public education is funded in Delaware.
The reality is that Jaques and the rest of state government are waiting for a ruling in two pending lawsuits concerning public school funding and property assessments in Delaware. The Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the NAACP Delaware State Conference of Branches have filed two lawsuits relating to education funding in Delaware. In the first case, the groups allege that Delaware officials are failing to fund the education of disadvantaged students adequately and are in violation of the state constitutional requirement for an “efficient system of free public schools.” The complaint also challenges how Delaware allocates state funds to school districts, contending that the system fails to provide sufficient funding to balance the differences between rich and poor districts.
The second case contends county governments are violating a state law requiring them to assess property for taxation at its “true value.” Kent County last conducted a property assessment 32 years ago — the most recent of the three counties. New Castle County assessments were last performed in 1983. Sussex County’s assessments date back to 1974. The Plaintiffs allege that the statewide inflation-adjusted median price of a home in Delaware jumped more than 115% between 1980 and 2010. The lack of assessments has resulted in disparities, with some homeowners paying higher taxes than their wealthier neighbors living in more valuable dwellings.
If the Chancery Court rules in the Plaintiff’s favor, a statewide property reassessment will be required, and then we will have to see how much more school tax or property tax revenue results. Likewise, we will have to see whether the Court orders increases in education funding in any way. Depending on these factors, Jaques and the entire General Assembly may be scrambling to find new funding sources for education, and no doubt new bills like the stricken HB129 will be reintroduced. If the Court rules against the Plaintiffs, the funding problems will remain, and I suspect Jaques or others will be back with a similar bill.