Voters in the Middletown-Odessa-Townsend area will head to the polls twice next month.
And it's almost certain that the results of the May 9 referendum – which comes on the heels of a larger tax increase that failed in February – will loom large over the school board election on May 14.
Two of the five candidates running for a seat on the Appoquinimink school board spoke this week about their stance on the upcoming referendum, as well as the district's recent decision to temporarily close two schools while cutting $305,000 from next year's budget.
Incumbent Edna Cale declined to respond to questions for this article, while challengers Miguel Gonzalez and Michael Guinan did not return phone messages and emails seeking comment.
However, educator Matt Brown and environmental engineer Kelly Wright offered contrasting views on the upcoming referendum, which seeks to raise an additional $2.8 million a year by increasing the district's current school tax rate of $1.60 per $100 of assessed property value by 15 cents.
"I supported the Feb. 28 referendum, and will support the May 9 referendum," said Wright, who's been endorsed by the unions representing teachers, paraprofessionals and nutrition workers. "Our community members know what a tax referendum will cost their bank accounts, but what is the value of that money relative to our district's ability to maintain a high-performing school system? Our current financial situation leaves us with overcrowded classrooms and low teacher morale, among other problems … Hopefully, everyone understands [the proposed tax increase] cannot go any lower without significantly affecting the classroom environment and opportunities for our students."
Brown stopped short of backing the referendum, which he said would come on the heels of residents having to cut their household budgets "to pay for local- and state-level mistakes."
"I'm still uneasy about asking any resident of Appoquinimink to pay a higher tax," he said. "While I am more open to this referendum compared to February's, I still have my concerns … If the referendum passes, the district must show the residents of Appoquinimink that it has learned from this experience and respect the fact that we are all going through a hard time."
The referendum, if approved, would be the last step in the school board's three-phase plan to stave off a $2 million shortfall next year. The other parts of that plan, approved in March and April, include temporarily closing the Appoquinimink Early Childhood Education Center and converting it to the district's lone pre-K school, keeping Townsend Elementary closed for an additional year after this year's renovation project and reducing the budget by $305,000.
Brown said he's glad the district approved the spending cuts, but questioned whether those reductions could have been made years ago.
"The cuts are a perfect example of kicking the can down the road, instead of facing the problem head on … I feel that many of the residents would like to know what is not being cut," he said, adding that he would have not voted to close the two schools next year. "If the decision was solely up to me, I never would have built the Old State campus. It was a poor decision to build schools that were not full and not needed … I know the board could have decreased the district budget, but asking for more money was the easier way."
Page 2 of 2 - Wright said her first choice would have been to pass the Feb. 28 referendum, which sought to raise an additional $24.35 million through gradual tax increases over four years.
"My family and I reviewed what the original tax increase would mean for our household budget and decided that it was in the best interest of the children, teachers, support staff, administrators and community to adjust our spending and support it," she said. "I look at this as an investment: to keep my community safer, to keep the property values from dropping, to assist the schools in providing quality education, and to do my part in helping raise our district's children to become responsible adults who will do the same for the next generation."
District officials have indicated that another referendum and/or future spending cuts could be required in the next three to five years if federal, state and local funding fails to keep pace with rising costs.
Both Wright and Brown said they believe the district must take action now to postpone those decisions for as long as possible.
"I believe that the Appoquinimink School District must begin generating revenue, and taxpayers cannot be the sole source," Wright said, offering financial partnerships with local business and grant funding as potential sources. "In the end, generating income is going to require a lot of brainstorming and creative, out-of-the-box ideas. To this effect, I believe my educational and professional experience, which requires a lot of innovative and inventive thinking, would be of great value on the board."
Brown said he believes more financial belt-tightening should come before any future attempt to seek additional revenue from taxpayers.
"It is clear that the residents of Appoquinimink are demanding a more efficient school district and open school board," he said, while calling for an audit to ensure district funds are being used efficiently. "I strongly believe we can balance our district budget without losing our STEM program, drama clubs, languages, sports and without losing a teacher or increasing classroom sizes."