Former DSEA President presents school funding plan that rearranges the chairs on the K12 Titanic. No Mr. Matthews! No blank checkbooks for school boards!

School funding: We can give voters a voice without failing Delaware kids (opinion)

Mike Matthews Published 10:03 a.m. ET May 13, 2019 | Updated 12:08 p.m. ET May 13, 2019   

Mike Matthews lives in Wilmington and is past president of the Delaware State Education Association.

Nothing is a greater indicator of a society’s success or failure than whether our children are receiving a quality education that meets their unique intellectual, developmental, and emotional needs.

In order to meet those needs, schools must be appropriately funded to ensure adequate staffing levels and a wide range of programming to support the diverse needs of students around the state.

And that’s why the recent failures of the Christina School District’s operational referendum and the Indian River School Districts’ capital referendum are so disappointing and saddening.

Real students and educators will be impacted by this outcome. In Christina, the effects on the community will begin to take effect in just a few short months. Already, the school board has voted to lay off five teachers and eliminate another 58 temporary teaching jobs.  

Indian River, meanwhile, will not get the resources it needs to build more classroom space as the number of students it serves grows.

We have a problem here in Delaware with how we fund our schools. The fact that too many of our districts have to ask voters to raise their own taxes to maintain the bare minimum costs of keeping the lights on is not productive or efficient.

Delaware must embrace a school funding model that, at the very least, allows for districts to raise necessary local funds to keep up with the barest costs of doing business — namely maintaining appropriate staffing levels and needed programmatic expenses.

To that end, I have a proposal broken out into four areas for how we can better fund capital and operating expenses throughout the state that will give the voters, elected school boards, and the state a level of say in how our schools are funded.

First things first, though: We must begin by having a real conversation on property reassessment. Houses in Delaware have not been reassessed in 30-40 years. This is unacceptable and any action the state takes on discussing funding reform must be coupled with property reassessments.

With that consideration at the fore, here are my tips on making this happen:

  1. Current operating expenses: For this category, I support the move to grant school boards more authority to raise a modest amount of taxes on residents. This is the model used in hundreds of school districts around the country, including in Pennsylvania. In order to maintain adequate levels of staffing based on student enrollments as well as basic costs to keep our schools running, school boards should have the authority to raise the tax.

  2. New operating/program expenses: If a district chooses to unveil a new program (ie. purchasing one-to-one devices for each student or reconfiguring/creating new schools to attract students), then these expenses should be subject to a public vote. Residents of the district can determine the worthiness of the programs and grant the district more funds to implement them.   

  3.  Current capital expenses: Because the state chips in between 60-70% of school funding, it should look into creating a commission that regularly goes into all 200+ of our schools to ensure they are up to par when it comes to safety, environmental concerns, and basic functionality to meet the needs of students in the 21st century. As issues are identified, then schools around the state should be prioritized for the upgrades they need. These buildings are state properties and they need to be treated and funded as the assets they are and not be allowed to fall into disrepair because voters have decided not to support them. 

  4. New construction expenses: Several districts around the state have seen explosions of growth in the last 10 years. A few have successfully passed new construction referenda to build schools. Some, like Indian River, have had a tough time passing referenda for new schools. For any new construction, I believe voters in a district should have a say on whether taxes should be levied to build. If voters consistently turn down referenda for new construction, at a certain point I believe it’s in the state’s best interest to step in and mitigate a solution to get needed schools built.

    These ideas are by no means exhaustive. For too long, we’ve sidestepped some critical conversations on school funding, and I believe we are in the stage where we need to be creative in our thinking because our current situation is dysfunctional.

    I support a plan where voters are still given a say, school board members are given a slight increase in authority, and the state steps in to share a greater responsibility for the physical needs of our schools.

    Students across the state can no longer wait for action. Their futures depend on a system that works for them. The time is now to do what is necessary to ensure our schools have what they need to best serve students.

Giving schools an ounce of authority to raise taxes without going to referendums opens Pandora’s box. We seen have the just a cup of coffee tactics when with referendums and then , if you don’t support the referendums you don’t support kids.

“We have a problem here in Delaware with how we fund our schools” What about fixing the problem? The problem is the inequity in school funding across the counties and the state. Why do some students schools get more funding than another ? Lets take New Castle Count for an example. Why ins’t the local share of public education constant? Some people oppose consolidated school district in New Castle County because it would infringe on local control and parental engagement.  I get it! However , there is nothing stopping us from having equal funding state and local. Wait perhaps their is and it “politics”. The LEAD report emphasized cost sayings via consolidation of school districts. What has been done to outsource HR, Food Service , Transportation and maintenance of public schools via countywide contacts. I have a hunch organized labor. But all this has it debates and controversy.

The real problem lies within the core of politics centered in legislative hall.  Our state legislators approves up or down votech aka public schools request for more funding. Delaware Code Title 14 Chapter 26 has a review process vs arbitrarily raise local tax rate as you suggest.

(a) The board of education for each vocational technical high school district shall, no later than the second Thursday in July, deliver its warrant, with a duplicate of the assessment list, to the receiver of taxes and county treasurer of the county or counties where the district is located.

(b) Prior to submitting any subsequent legislation to the General Assembly for approval that proposes to increase the tax rate authorized by § 2601(a)(1) of this title, the Sussex County Vocational Technical School District Board of Education shall first submit by March 15 of that year its proposed tax rate increase and justification therefor to a Tax Rate Review Committee composed of the following members:

(1) A representative of the Department of Education designated by the Secretary;

(2) Two public members from Sussex County designated by the Governor;

(3) The Controller General;

(4) The Director of the Office of Management and Budget;

(5) The superintendent of 1 of the Sussex County school districts designated by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

The Tax Rate Review Committee shall, in a timely fashion, review the proposed tax rate increase taking into account the District’s projected enrollment, current operating expense requirements and the county’s taxable assessment, and shall file a report by April 15 of that year with the Governor, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, indicating whether or not the proposed tax rate is sufficient to meet the District’s reasonable operating requirements. Copies of this report shall also be distributed to each local board of education in the county.

The funding process for public votech schools has been working and has an organized no bias review of necessity of need process. State legislators keep their pencils sharp to keep votech funding focused on the needs not the wants. When was the last time a votech went into financial recovery. The “problem” fix is right in front of us and once  local school taxes are equalized by counties the “combined school boards” that exist in each county pull together and formulate the necessity of need for traditional public schools within  in the county. At the end of  the day equality in school funding is out of balanced between each school district and yes the referendum process where one district is successful and another is not expanding the funding gap. FIX THE CORE PROBLEM! And our state legislators need to due an impact study on each and every piece of K-12 legislation before that legislation is voted on. This was the process in the past until Senator Sokola had the required “written Impact analysis” repealed. But what the fuck do I know ? I only have a GED and pocketful of college credits.

One response to “Former DSEA President presents school funding plan that rearranges the chairs on the K12 Titanic. No Mr. Matthews! No blank checkbooks for school boards!

  1. Over the last 20 years how many referendums have passed? Delaware is in the top 10% of money spent per pupil and yet more money is needed? I could see if we were in the bottom 10% but all this has shown is the more money spent per unit doesnt equate to better results.