By Staff Writer: Wolf von Baumgart
General Assembly Considers Options
The Delaware General Assembly met twice earlier this week to consider funding options for Sussex Technical High School District. The Sussex County Delegation (consisting of nine state representatives and five state senators) continues to study Sussex Tech’s impending financial crisis. Five budgetary proposals were originally included in a study attendant to House Concurrent Resolution 2, previously passed in January. Subsequently, other options have emerged for consideration.
Sussex Tech administrators have been steadily seeking legislative approval to more than double the STHSD’s current property taxes over the last two years above the current limit as currently permitted by statute. Delaware’s three state-created countywide vocational school districts are legally empowered to raise school taxes (with the approval of the General Assembly and Governor) without a referendum as required for all other non-countywide public school districts.
Currently, STHSD taxes 23.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value. District officials desire a new ceiling authorizing an approximate 115 percent tax increase over six years, ending with a new rate of 50.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.
According to State House Minority Leader Danny Short (R- District 39, Seaford): “Nothing is off the table. Sussex Tech’s finances are not sound and it’s because of the decisions of their leadership. Now, they not only want us to bail them out, they want us to use their bucket too. We’re not going to be rushed into acting because of the situation in which Sussex Tech officials have placed their school. We will act as soon as we reach a consensus that is right for the thousands of Sussex Countians that have a stake in this.” , he stated in a media release. Short is one of the bill’s prime sponsors.
Speaker of the House, Pete Schwartzkopf, (D- 41st District, Rehoboth Beach) weighed in as follows: .”Sussex Tech administrators embarked on an aggressive multi-year expansion plan, even planning a lavish new school. The people that are being asked to foot the bill for this did not approve it. The General Assembly has not approved it. There are multiple issues we need to address with Sussex Tech. This goes beyond Sussex Tech to how they work with, and are perceived by, the county’s other districts.”
Several matters will remain in suspension, including massive new school construction, expansion, curriculum plans and selection of the incoming freshman class until Sussex Tech’s issues are resolved:
(1) More than 700 applications have been submitted for 425 planned openings.
(2) Sussex Tech has increased enrollment over the previous three years, with a current student population of 1,545.
(3) Sussex Tech officials claim that they need the revenue increase to meet their stated goal of serving 20 percent (approximately 2,120) of the county’s high school students by Fiscal Year 2020.
(4) The cost of the proposed school construction is not reflected in Sussex Tech’s current property tax hike proposal.
Sussex Tech officials submitted proposals to the Delaware Department of Education for a capital improvement plan with a cost estimate of between $279.8 million and $316.5 million. The local share of the plan would range between $112 million and $126 million, according to the HCR 2 report.
The Sussex County delegation will continue their deliberations next week, before the two-week Easter Recess.
Currently, there is no legislation pending before the General Assembly that would address the constitutional issue of equal protection under the law and other public interest issues by requiring voter approval of proposed vocational school district tax increases, as legally required in all other Delaware school districts.