Cape plans referendum on tax increase for operating expenses

Average cost to homeowner about $64 a year
December 27, 2019

An average Cape Henlopen School District homeowner would pay $64 more a year if voters approve a proposed operating expense referendum to be held in the spring.

School board members discussed the need for funding Dec. 12, when Director of Business Operations Oliver Gumbs recommended a tax increase of 25 cents per $100 of assessed value that would go into effect July 1.

“Our needs are immediate due to growth; I would not recommend a phase-in,” Gumbs said. “This increase should put us on solid ground for a few years.”

Gumbs said the proposal would generate about $130,000 per cent, or about $2.8 million, if passed. The debt service rate for all currently approved projects will go down in the 2024 fiscal year. 

Superintendent Bob Fulton said the increase, roughly $5 a month, is reasonable. “We’ve been given $1.2 million less from the state over the past three years, and that money has more strings attached,” Fulton said. “The more students you have, the more staff you have, the more need you have.”

Fulton said two previous referendums included expense increases to help with additional staffing at the new Love Creek Elementary.

School board member Jessica Tyndall suggested the referendum include a separate question to approve a pool at Cape High, stating that 27 people have recently asked her why Cape High doesn’t have a pool. “What can we do to give back to the community?” Tyndall asked. “If we’re asking them to constantly increase their taxes, what can we do for them? Let’s give the community an opportunity to build the long-awaited pool.”

Fulton said he would love to see a pool at Cape, but a pool would be funded locally, with no assistance from the state. He said it was more important to meet the district’s financial needs first.

“We have given the community an education,” Fulton said. “It’s a district people want to move to, where home values have increased, a district that strives hard to be the very best, not just in the state but in the country, so if anybody said to me, what do you do for us, I would say, look at the kids. Look at the teachers, look at the facilities and the results.”

Fulton suggested the district move forward with plans for a current expense referendum and form a task force to determine how a pool would be managed and used by the community. Board member Janis Hanwell agreed. “We don’t have time to get our act together and go to referendum for a pool this year; a lot of homework needs to be done,” Hanwell said. 

School board President Alison Myers said people pushing for a pool may have unrealistic expectations about what their access to the pool would be. She said she didn’t want to tie a pool to an operating expense referendum.

“Our main goal is to have kids in the most effective classrooms, and that is done with the lowest adult-to-student ratio possible,” Myers said. “We have always used every unit to the maximum ability, and I don’t want to start not using units because we can’t afford to pay the teachers. That’s the bottom line.” 

Depending on the number of students each Sept. 30, the district qualifies for a certain number of units from the state, Myers said after the meeting. One full unit equals a teacher and a half-unit equals a para; school districts that can’t afford to pay the local share of a teacher’s salary may leave that position unfilled, cash in unused units and use the funding for other items. “We have never done that,” Myers said.

Tyndall said a task force would allow the community to have a say.

“The biggest mistake this community did was vote down the pool,” Tyndall said. “It’s time to start revisiting that conversation. Children all across our district do not have access to swimming lessons. We’re not giving our children that opportunity at all.”

Fulton said school officials would present a final recommendation on referendum details and a suggested voting day for possible action at the January school board meeting.

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