Newark City Council made another foray into education politics last week, voting to endorse a controversial bill that would allow school districts to raise taxes without a referendum.
Council voted 5-2 to direct the city’s lobbyist, Rick Armitage, to lobby in support of HB 129, which was introduced last month by Rep. Earl Jaques along with Newark legislators Rep. Paul Baumbach and Sen. Dave Sokola.
The bill would allow school boards to raise school taxes each year by 2 percent or an amount equal to the consumer price index increase, whichever is lower. A referendum would still be required if districts sought a larger increase or for capital projects.
“When school districts ask for money in a referendum, they ask for more than what the immediate need is because they know how hard it is to pass referendums, and they can’t come every year with a referendum,” Jaques said. “With this other system, if you only ask for what you need when you need it, it will be less money in the long run.”
Council also endorsed Baumbach’s companion bill, HB 134, which would shorten the term for school board members from five years to three years as a way to give voters more say over the board members who would be empowered to raise their taxes.
“You can kick the bums out if you don’t like their actions,” noted Baumbach, who asked council to support the two bills.
Baumbach’s bill also establishes compensation for school board members — $100 per meeting, to be paid by the state.
City council has no regulatory power over the Christina School District and has historically shied away from getting involved in district matters. Over the last year, however, council has shown an increased willingness to broach the subject, as some members worry that Christina’s poor reputation will have a negative impact on Newark’s potential for economic development.
“People make a decision to live in our town or not live in our town because of the education system. When you see people who are moving south of here and paying higher taxes than we are to be in a different school district, that’s a concern to me,” Mayor Jerry Clifton said.
Councilwoman Jen Wallace said she hesitated to get involved in the business of another elected body but believes the two bills are important for education in Delaware.
“It’s outside my comfort zone, but I think it’s important,” Wallace said. “The schools impact quality of life here in Newark. While this legislation isn’t perfect and doesn’t address all the funding inequalities that exist, I think something needs to be done.”