Revised Cape Henlopen referendum fails by 495 votes

Cuts to programs, fewer teacher hires likely; anonymous group campaigned against district
May 24, 2024

For the second time in two months, voters defeated a Cape Henlopen School District referendum, an action that school leaders say will likely lead to program cuts and fewer teachers hired.

The May 21 referendum failed by 495 votes, with a vote count of 4,628 against and 4,133 for, according to unofficial results posted on the Delaware Department of Elections website. 

School board President Alison Myers said the referendum’s failure is a huge blow to the district.

“Ultimately, it’s our students and staff that lose and that is heartbreaking,” Myers said. “The board will need to regroup and take a hard look at the ways in which we can live within the current budget. That means possible cuts to programs and not hiring all the staff we qualify for. It really is a sad day for Cape.”

Superintendent Bob Fulton said the outcome of the referendum was extremely disappointing.

“Over the next few months, we’ll be working together to determine both a short-term and long-term plan,” Fulton said. “We are grateful for the parents, staff, community members and students who took time out of their day to support us. Despite this setback, we will always be Cape proud and will continue to do what is best for all the students, staff and families in our district.”

The referendum had called for a $0.086 debt service tax rate increase to buy a $15 million, 102-acre parcel on which to build a $21 million district office and a $6 million bus parking and maintenance facility. 

It also sought a $0.305 current expense tax rate increase to generate $4.6 million annually for staff salaries, utilities, technology and instructional materials.

A home with a market price of $500,000 that has an assessed value of $29,900 would have paid $116 per year, or $9 per month, for all proposed improvements, Fulton said at the May 17 school board meeting. 

With about 250 new students enrolled each year, district officials said growth was driving the referendum. Plans had called for moving the district office from the Cape High campus so additional classrooms could be constructed at the high school, which currently has more than 2,000 students, and sufficient parking and stormwater management facilities could be added to the property.

With the referendum defeated, the expansion at Cape High is further delayed. At the May 17 board meeting, Fulton said that modular classrooms would likely be needed at the high school if the referendum failed.

Voter turnout was even higher than in the March referendum, which was defeated 4,274-3,613 and had requested a $0.21 capital projects tax rate increase to buy the same property and construct a district office, bus maintenance facility and a swimming complex. Based on feedback, the pool was removed from the May referendum request.

In March, the district had also requested a $0.33 operating expense tax rate increase that would have generated over $5 million annually. The operating expense tax rate increase request was decreased in the May referendum, as operating costs for the previously considered swimming complex were no longer needed.

By law, the school district cannot hold another referendum until March 27, 2025, Fulton said, which is one day and one year after the originally scheduled vote.

Anonymous campaign

In the days leading up to the election, Lewes-area residents reported that materials left hanging on their front doorknobs by unknown individuals included a packet of flyers and a printed rack card urging them to vote against “the rushed tax referendum” and “don’t allow taxation without representation.”

The papers stated the contents were a “summation of opinion points expressed on [WGMD show] ‘Your Turn, Delmarva.’” 

Opinions included comments and questions about the ongoing county property reassessment and a possible 10% school tax increase in the year following to make the assessment revenue neutral, that items on the referendum were wants rather than needs, whether any other district has its own bus maintenance facility, and that the proposed tax increase doesn’t address academic initiatives. 

Contact information was not provided on the papers.


At Cape High, 2,286 total votes were cast, with 1,146 voting for and 1,140 voting against. There were seven undervotes, for a contest total of 2,293.

According to the Department of Elections, an undervote occurs when a voter makes fewer than the maximum number of choices allowed in an election and when a voter makes no choice in a single-contest election.

At Beacon Middle, 1,381 total votes were cast, with 594 voting for, 787 voting against and three undervotes for a contest total of 1,384. At Lewes Public Library, 1,661 total votes were cast, with 956 voting for, 705 voting against and six undervotes for a contest total of 1,667.

At Mariner Middle, 1,915 total votes were cast, with 568 voting for, 1,347 voting against and seven undervotes for a contest total of 1,922. At Rehoboth Elementary, 1,314 total votes were cast, with 765 voting for, 549 voting against and two undervotes for a contest total of 1,316.

In all, 204 absentee votes were cast, with 104 for and 100 against. The contest total of all votes, including undervotes and absentee votes, was 8,786. 

In 2018, the last year the district held a referendum, 3,236 votes were cast – 2,372 in favor and 864 against – for a plan to construct a third middle school, now known as Frederick D. Thomas, set to open in September in Lewes.

The 2018 referendum also included planning and design for a 20-room addition to Cape High and improvements to its cafeteria, as well as a permanent operating expense tax to pay for staff and maintenance at Fred Thomas Middle.

In 2016, Cape voters approved a referendum to build two new elementary schools and renovate two others by a 2,947-1,031 turnout, and in 2014, voters also approved building Love Creek Elementary School, with 3,597 for and 2,410 against the new facility.


Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter