Voters in the Appoquinimink School District overwhelmingly rejected a tax increase during a February referendum, but agreed to a smaller tax increase three months later after the school board agreed to nearly $1 million in spending cuts, mostly through the temporary closure of two schools.
The debate, which bitterly divided the community for months, began when the school district sought approval for a two-part revenue increase that would have eventually raised the local school tax rate by more than 37 cents.
The first question on the Feb. 15 ballot proposed raising $22.75 million in additional operating revenue over four years that district officials said were needed to make up for years of state funding cuts.
The referendum also sought to raise another $400,000 through a one-time 2.13-cent increase in the school tax rate that would have funded competitive sports programs at the district’s three middle schools.
The proposals garnered significant opposition from anti-tax groups, including the Newark-based First State Liberty PAC, which sent recorded phone messages to voters describing the referendum as a “kick in the teeth.”
Ultimately voters rejected both questions, leaving the district with a potential $2 million shortfall in its budget for the 2013-2014 school year.
The school board responded by narrowly approving a three-part plan that included $300,000 in program cuts, shuttering Townsend Elementary School and the Appoquinimink Early Childhood Center for one year and putting a second referendum before voters that sought a smaller, 15-cent tax-rate hike.
More than 60 percent of voters approved the second referendum, a near complete reversal from the 58 percent who reject the initial attempt.
While the school district eventually succeeded in getting a referendum passed, the compromise has had wide-ranging repercussions.
For instance, the renovation project that closed Townsend Elementary School during the 2012-2013 school year is nearly complete, but the building will remain vacant until the start of the 2014-2015.
Meanwhile, direct funding to individual schools was cut by 8 percent, while 20 programs were cut or reduced, resulting in a handful of layoffs.
New labor deals with three of the four unions that represent district employees also have been delayed as a result of the district’s financial uncertainty until nearly halfway through the year.
Meanwhile, approval of the referendum saved the jobs of at least 28 teachers and 17 other staff members, as well as preserved world language programs, extracurricular activities and non-varsity sports programs, all of which were on the chopping block at some point.
District officials have said the next referendum could be put before voters as early as 2016.