Tax inequities focus of school-funding forum

Sussex County property values last assessed in 1974
October 25, 2019

A possible property reassessment dominated discussion during a Sept. 25 forum addressing school funding in Delaware.

Forum participants discussed a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in Chancery Court in January 2018 which states that Delaware fails to provide an adequate education for all students, particularly low-income, English learners and students with disabilities. The suit says this occurs in part because local real estate taxes for education are based on property values last assessed in 1974 in Sussex County.

Senior Fellow at the University of Delaware Institute for Public Administration Kevin Carson said the issue of reassessment must be addressed. He said many people move to Delaware because of tax advantages, including a significantly lower school tax.

“There are people in this county who are paying too much in taxes currently, and there are some people who are not paying enough. It’s that simple,” he said. “I don’t believe there is a fairness or equity standard that can stand the test of an examination. It’s tragic, in my opinion.”

Carson said properties are assessed that didn’t even exist in 1974, and that officials know where the shift in taxes would occur.

“We’ve played with this elephant for decades, and the time to address assessment may be addressed for us,” he said. “We’ve had a failure to adapt as funding challenges and student needs changed.”

Secretary of Education Susan Bunting said about 140,000 students attend kindergarten through 12th grade in Delaware, and that the state spends an average of $15,000 per student. 

Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, said Delaware spends about $2.4 billion a year on education. “Delaware is one of the top investors in education in the United States,” she said.

Briggs King said legislators are in the fact-finding stage regarding reassessment. She said an expert told her only six states have reassessed in the last 10 years and that planning alone took four years. She said she was told it would cost about $25 million to do the reassessment and that neither the state nor county wants to pay for it.

“It’s complicated to change school funding,” she said. “You just can’t change it. Most of all, it comes down to political will and the strength to do what needs to be done versus what one wants to do. If the Legislature doesn’t do something, the court probably will.”

League of Women Voters of Sussex County and American Association of University Women hosted the forum in Georgetown featuring Bunting, Carson, Briggs King and Associate Secretary for Operations at Department of Education Chuck Longfellow.