Sussex Tech School District's recent announcement that it has to raise $4 million in taxes or cut 24 jobs leaves the Sussex County legislative delegation wondering what happened.
“This shows a serious issue with fidicuary management,” said Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes. “If you're that far in the hole at this point, there's a problem.”
Lopez said the district should have considered eliminating a program or two before letting finances deteriorate to the point of having to lay off two dozen people.
Sussex Tech School District Superintendent Allen F. Lathbury said the district needs to raise nearly $4 million in taxes to pay operating expenses. Positions on the chopping block are 11 teachers, three teaching assistants, one counselor, one psychologist, one nurse, one public information officer, two secretaries, one coordinator and three administration positions
“We've forecasted this for many years,” Lathbury said. “A little less than $4 million in revenue never materialized.”
Lathbury said the district has operated on a bare bones budget since 2008, when a 3.5 cent property tax increase went into effect. The district also lost about $100,000 a year in vocational funding that has been funneled to vocational programs at other school districts, he said.
A committee that included Director of the Office of Management and Budget Ann Visalli, Controller General Mike Morton, Laurel Superintendent John Ewald and Delmar Superintendent David Ring among other state and education officials, agreed that Sussex Tech needs to increase Sussex County property taxes to pay for operating expenses, Lathbury said.
The increase calls for an average of $19 a year more in property taxes in 2015 and an additional $5 more a year for the next five years. After the six-year period, an average taxpayer would pay about $42 more for a total vo-tech tax bill of $83 a year, more than doubling the current vocational tax paid by Sussex County property owners.
If the tax rate is approved by the legislature, Lathbury said, it will assure the 24 positions slated for cuts would be saved.
However, the way Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, sees it, no one from the Sussex delegation is going to sponsor or vote for the bill.
“There's not much support for this in my district,” he said. “They don't have any Sussex legislators jumping up and down wanting to sponsor this.”
In the meantime, Sussex Tech has found a Kent County legislator who agreed to sponsor the bill. Schwartzkopf said Rep. Darryl Scott, chairman of the House education committee, told him he would sponsor the bill.
“But if there are no votes out of Sussex, I don't think it's going to pass,” Schwartzkopf said.
Public sentiment these days is strongly against higher taxes, said Rep. Stephen Smyk, R-Milton.
“To ask the public to pay more taxes, however so little, is not received well by the public," he said, especially when the state appears to be attempting to gradually increase other taxes and fees and other school referendums are already scheduled.
Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, agrees and said the timing is suspect.
“It was a shocker to hear they needed a tax increase,” she said.
Briggs King said she would like the district to examine its spending policies before it considers eliminating positions. Of concern, she said, is the money spent on a lobbyist to influence state lawmakers and the cost of a partnership between Widener University and Sussex Tech to offer courses to Tech students for college credit.
“Widener has been a great addition, but at what cost?” she asked. “Maybe other school districts would like to offer that but can't afford it.”
Lathbury said Sussex Tech has hired lawfirm Parkowski, Guerke & Swayze PA since 2013 to help with legal issues. Since the firm interacts with legislators, he said, the firm must register as a lobbyist. The district spent about $10,000 on the firm's services in 2014, he said.
When asked whether administrative jobs, with salaries that often exceed $100,000, were not considered for elimination to save more lower paying teaching and secretarial positions, Lathbury said an administrator's value is commenserate with experience and the amount of time they put into the job.
“Yes we do have administrators who make good pay. Follow them around and tell me one of them who can get by on a 60-hour week. It doesn't happen,” he said.
Still, the salaries are significant. A review of salaries provided by the Office of Management and Budget for Sussex Tech district administrators run from about $127,000 to $163,000 annually. In comparison, district officials at Cape Henlopen School District make similar salaries, but they serve more than twice the number of students.
Lathbury said state officials created the existing fulltime vo-tech system in 1991 along with the funding mechanism to sustain vocational-technical schools.
“Everybody is always ready to question allocation of resources and one person's value over another,” he said. “It's always easier to look into a glass bottle than to look out.”
Briggs King said for her, it is about accountability. Unlike traditional school districts that must get voter approval before property taxes are raised to pay for expenses, vo-tech schools must go through the state legislature. And school boards that govern vo-tech schools are appointed, not elected like their traditional school counterparts.
Briggs King said she is considering legislation that would require elections for vo-tech school board seats.
“That way the decision remains in the people's hands, just like all the other public school districts in Delaware,” she said.