Seven months after voters handily rejected a tax increase, the Christina School District is gearing up for another operating referendum.
The vote will likely happen in June 2020, though the school board decided Tuesday to wait until next month to officially select the date.
Under Delaware law, school districts cannot raise taxes without holding a referendum to seek approval from voters. Because of inflation, rising labor costs and other increases, school districts typically have to go to referendum every three to five years just to maintain the status quo.
“In Delaware, part of running a school district is getting referendums passed,” board member Fred Polaski remarked.
Officials are still early in the planning process and have not yet determined how much of a tax increase they will ask for.
The April 30 referendum, which failed 4,692 to 3,350, would have raised the average homeowner’s taxes $217 over three years and generated an additional $18.9 million dollars for the district. After it failed, the district laid off 63 teachers.
In addition to the operating referendum, which brings in money to pay salaries, utility bills and other everyday costs, Christina is also considering a capital referendum, which would authorize the district to borrow money for large-scale renovations.
The district has identified $100 million in needed upgrades to 12 schools. If approved by the state board of education, the state would fund 60 percent, with the rest covered by bonds. Taxes would go up to cover the cost of paying off the bonds.
The board hasn’t decided if or when to hold a capital referendum, but it’s possible it could be held at the same time as the operating referendum, according to Robert Silber, chief financial officer for the district.
On Tuesday, the school board held a lengthy strategy session, discussing what went wrong in the April referendum and how the district can improve for the next one.
Most agreed that the last vote was rushed, and the district did not have enough time to do outreach to the public.
Polaski said the district needs to start planning its communication strategy now.
“We have to make a convincing case as to why people should vote for it and the benefits,” he said.
The board should set the tax rate in December, giving officials six months to meet with parents, civic groups and others to discuss the reasons for why the referendum is needed, Polaski added.
“We need an all-out, full-court press,” he said.
He noted that after two referendums failed in 2015, the district was able to get one approved in 2016 after enlisting the help of involved parents to make the case by meeting with voters and knocking on doors.
“My sense is we didn’t do nearly as much of that in 2019,” he said. “The key to success is face-to-face active communication rather than putting something on the website.”
Board member Angela Mitchell said another key is being ready to combat disinformation on social media. The rise of semi-private apps like Nextdoor make that more difficult because posts are only visible to residents in a certain geographic area.
“It’s hard to combat that if that’s where the public is going for information,” Mitchell said.
Board member Keeley Powell said trying to respond to social media posts is like going down a rabbit hole, but she suggested the district look at criticism from the April referendum and proactively answer concerns and correct misconceptions.
“You can’t in real time argue with people, but you can look at it and say, these are significant concerns that need to be addressed,” Powell said.
She added that the district needs to engage with voters at schools and other places where young families gather, such as the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club.
Board President Meredith Griffin said the referendum’s success will hinge on three things: timing, communication and confidence in the district.
“I believe there’s a significant level of low confidence in the community. What that lack of confidence is going to breed is apathy or anger,” Griffin said, adding that causes people to either ignore the referendum or oppose it. “We need enough time to be able to come up with a plan to communicate the why, the what and the benefit of why we are doing this. We also have to make sure we’re addressing whatever we can to begin to change the tide on confidence.”