The second time proved to be the charm for the Appoquinimink School District.
Voters overwhelming approved the district's request for a 15-cent hike in the school tax rate on Thursday, with a final count of 4,637 voting in favor of the referendum and 3,023 voting against, or 60.5 to 39.5 percent.
That's close to a complete reversal from the outcome of operating revenue portion of the district's Feb 28 referendum, which was defeated by a vote of 4,633 against and 3,301 in favor, or 58 to 42 percent.
"It feels a lot better tonight than it did three months ago," Superintendent Matthew Burrows told district staff and supporters who gathered at the Marion Proffitt Training Center to watch the returns come in Thursday night. "Thank you all so much for all your support and hard work."
Afterward, Burrows said he felt "pessimistically optimistic" while waiting for the final vote totals.
"I was a little nervous all day, because … I went into this job to do what is best for kids and losing this would have drastically impacted our ability to educate," he said. "I think what made the difference this time around is that we went back and let everyone share their opinions about what they thought we needed to do, and I think we gave a much clearer message this time about what would happen if this did not pass."
For weeks, district officials warned that failing to win passage of the 15-cent tax rate hike – and the $2.79 million a year in added revenue it will generate – would mean job losses for 45 staff members, including 28 teachers, as well as the elimination of world language programs in elementary and middle schools, all middle school-level extra-curricular activities and high school freshman and junior varsity sports, among other programs.
While Thursday's vote means those jobs and programs will remain in place next year, it does not offer any reprieve for staff and students at Townsend Elementary and the Appoquinimink Early Childhood Center, both of which will be closed through the 2014-2015 school year in a move expected save $645,000.
Approval of Thursday's referendum also does not mean the district will restore the $305,000 in spending cuts approved by the school board last month. Those cuts will still result in an 8-percent reduction in direct annual funding to each school building, as well as the elimination of funding for bus cameras, middle school Chinese courses, summer hours for school nurses and counselors, a year-end staff cookout, the Teacher of the Year dinner and an annual dinner for retiring staff.
Those cuts were made as part of the school board's three-part plan to stave off a $2 million shortfall next year – a situation district officials blame on state funding cuts to the tune of $4 million a year.
Page 2 of 2 - The final phase of the school board's plan depended votes approving Thursday's referendum, which will allow for a 15-cent hike in the existing school tax rate of $1.60 per $100 of assessed property value, or roughly half the increase the Feb. 28 referendum sought to gradually impose over four years.
"There was a lot of compromise after the February referendum," said Jackie Ridgley, a district parent who co-chaired Appoquinimink's referendum committee. "We invited a lot of the people who were vocal in their opposition to the first referendum to sit down with us and talk about why they felt that way. As a result, I think we ended up with a path for getting to the next level."
The school board's decision to adopt nearly $1 million in spending cuts before seeking a smaller tax increase turned out to be a winning formula across most of the district.
Thursday's referendum was approved by voters at all but two of the 11 polling stations in the district – the exceptions being the Marion Proffitt Training Center in Odessa and the Townsend Early Childhood Center.
February's referendum, by contrast, was defeated at all the local polling stations except Olive B. Loss and Silver Lake elementary schools.
"To those people who voted against the referendum, I would say we respect your opinion and we hope that over time the district can demonstrate that this outcome really was the right choice for our community," said Michael Wagner, also a parent co-chair of the district's referendum committee.
Ridgley, meanwhile, encouraged opposition voters engage with the school district.
"Come to the school board meetings and let your voice be heard," she said. "If you feel like the money isn't being spent right, speak up and hold people accountable."
Voters will get their first opportunity to speak up after Thursday's referendum when the polling stations re-open for the Appoquinimink school board election on May 14.
In that contest, four candidates are vying for one seat on the five-member school board. They include incumbent Edna Cale and challengers Matt Brown, Michael Gonzalez and Kelly Wright.