Cape Henlopen School Board voted unanimously Jan. 23 to set a Tuesday, March 31 operating expense referendum that, if passed, would increase taxes by about $64 a year.
Officials are seeking a 25-cent tax increase per $100 of assessed average value, which Superintendent Bob Fulton said would generate $3 million for the district.
“This is not a new topic for us,” Fulton said. “We've discussed it over and over again trying to, if at all possible, avoid going to referendum for current expenses alone.”
Fulton said officials have reduced $1.3 million from the budget in the past several years. “For us it is all about growth,” Fulton said. “We’re growing a lot. In your schools, you can probably feel it.”
For the past three years, the district has grown by about 200 students each year, and Fulton said keeping up with the local portion of salary and benefits has been difficult. Last year, Fulton said, the district saw an increase of $700,000 in its portion of salary and benefits. Every 1 percent raise staff receives equals $220,000, he said.
“It happens year after year, and we don’t see things slowing down,” said Fulton, who cited a study that projected the district will have 7,000 students by 2030.
Fulton said that three years ago, Delaware Department of Education cut funding from school districts; specifically, $1.2 million was cut from Cape’s annual budget. Fulton said the cut hurt because it was discretionary funds the district used for items such as technology and energy costs. Fulton said the state provides funding for energy costs, but last year it was $400,000 less than what it actually cost to heat and cool district facilities.
Fulton said in 2014, 2016 and 2018 the district also held referendums, which he said were necessary because the district needed new space. He said two of those referendums had current expense portions - 17 cents for the new Love Creek Elementary, 15 cents for the new middle school set to open in 2023 and 5 cents for the additional high school space, now under construction.
Fulton said in 2024, the debt service ceiling for all currently approved projects will begin to decrease for taxpayers. He said even with the increase factored in, Cape has the fourth-highest taxes out of seven districts in the county.
“We’re still lower than three other districts in the county,” he said. “If we don’t do it, we won’t have the same education students deserve.”
President Alison Myers said absent board members Julie Derrick and Jessica Tyndall both expressed their support for the referendum; Fulton said the district’s citizen budget oversight committee also approves the referendum.
Fulton said he will present information about the referendum at 6 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 26 at Love Creek Elementary; 6 p.m., Monday, March 9 at Cape High; and at 6 p.m., Thursday, March 19 at H.O. Brittingham Elementary.