Should the Appoquinimink School District attempt to win approval of a scaled-back tax hike just weeks after voters defeated its first referendum?
Or should the district accept the outcome of the Feb. 28 vote and begin the painful process of eliminating as much as $2.2 million in operating costs through layoffs, program reductions and possible school closures?
That's the decision the five-member school board will have to face when it convenes a special meeting at the Marion E. Proffitt Training Center in Odessa at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
"I think it's going to be a very difficult decision," school board president Julie Johnson said this week. "No one wants to make cuts and no one wants to have their taxes increased. It's going to be a tough call all around."
Superintendent Matthew Burrows said district officials on Wednesday will present the school board with a series of options at the meeting, including a proposal to follow last month's failed referendum bid that would have raised an additional $24.35 million over the next four years, with another, albeit smaller, referendum, which could come before voters as early as May.
"The community has spoken, and I think it's clear that if the school board decides to go after a second referendum, it needs to be for a smaller rate [increase] over a shorter period," Burrows said Tuesday.
Burrows, however, declined to provide specifics of the tax increase he will recommend the school board consider pursuing.
"The district administrators and I are still working on that and I don't want to put any numbers out there now and have them be different than what gets presented next week," he said. "There was a lot of misinformation about the last referendum and I'd like to avoid that this time around."
Last month, voters defeated both questions on the district's two-part referendum, following weeks of vocal opposition from a handful of anti-tax groups, including the Newark-based First State Liberty PAC, which sent recorded phone messages to voters describing the proposed tax increase as a "kick in the teeth."
The first referendum question sought to raise $22.75 million in operating revenue over the next four years through a 24-cent increase in the district's school tax rate this year, followed by 4-cent hikes in 2014 and 2015, and a 3-cent hike in 2016. If approved, the question would have increased the district's current tax rate of $1.60 per $100 of assessed property value – the second lowest among New Castle County's five public school districts – to $1.95 over the next four years – the second highest among the five districts.
District officials have said that funding increase would have been used to make up ground lost through years of state funding cuts that have forced the district to defer spending on things like textbooks, technology and building maintenance.
Burrows said the added operational revenue also would have provided ongoing funding for academic programs and employee costs, including contractually-negotiated pay raises and rising health insurance costs.
The second question on the Feb. 28 ballot sought a one-time 2.13-cent increase in the school tax rate that would have raised an additional $400,000 a year to fund the creation of a competitive sports program at the district's three middle schools.
That proposal is not expected to be included in the referendum proposal Burrows recommends to the school board on Wednesday.
Burrows confirmed Tuesday that district officials also are preparing a list of recommended spending cuts in the event the school board chooses to forgo a second referendum bid.
Although he declined to elaborate on those recommendations, Burrows said they are certain to include a combination of layoffs, program reductions and possible school closures.
"We're looking at all of our options at this point," he said. "But ultimately it's going to be up to the school board to make the final decisions."
Johnson said her intent is to carefully weigh the consequences to the district's stakeholders, regardless of which direction the board takes.
"If we have to make cuts, I certainly want them to be the types of cuts that would have the least impact on students, although given the cuts we've made in the last couple of years, that's getting more and more challenging," she said. "If we go for another referendum, we will of course have to take the input from the community into account. I think the first referendum clearly showed us we have to do more to lower what any tax increase can possibly be."
When could the next referendum be held?
A second referendum vote could come as early as May, depending on what the Appoquinimink school board decides Wednesday.
District officials are required to provide the Department of Elections with a minimum 40-days notice before they can hold a vote, which would place the earliest opportunity at Tuesday, May 7.
The district is required to notify teachers of their employment status for the coming school year by May 15.
A second referendum vote would most likely come before July 9 at the latest, so a tax increase – if approved – could be applied to the current year's tax bills, which are mailed out in July and due back in September.
A referendum approved after that date would not be applied until the following year, meaning a tax increase would not generate any additional revenue in time for the 2013-2014 school year.