When a group of Newark High School students learned about the $10 million in budget cuts made by the Christina School Board earlier this month, they immediately realized the impact the cuts will have on them and their classmates – such as beloved teachers who will be laid off and sports and music programs that won’t exist next year.
Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they got to work on an advocacy campaign aimed at convincing their parents, family members and others in the Newark community why they should support Christina’s June 9 referendum, which would restore the budget cuts and provide other needed funds to the district.
“Since the district has made such big cuts that will impact many people and their activities, I think it really brought people together, thinking, wow, this could really affect the community in a negative way. We need to do something about this,” said sophomore Mei Tobin, who spearheaded the campaign she and her friends are calling Yellowjackets for Yes.
The students are using social media to spread the word and get other students to join the effort, and many are also calling family members, handing out flyers in their neighborhoods and even speaking to their church groups to educate the community about the referendum.
“I’ve talked about it with almost every group and in every interaction I’ve had,” sophomore Alejandro Lobo said.
Tobin said that, so far, the effort seems to have paid off.
“There’s been a ton of positive responses,” Tobin said. “I can feel so much energy about people really thinking this time, like, wow, there are a bunch of programs on the line. It’s going to have a huge impact, and we need to try to help each other out as a community.”
The subject of tax increases always brings out passionate arguments on both sides, but the students say they want voters to understand the real effects the budget cuts will have on them.
Junior Olivia Rivera, who plays field hockey and softball for Newark, said sports and other programs being cut help teach many skills, including leadership.
“It’s not just about me. I only have one year left, but it’s about the students who are just going into middle school now and haven’t played a sport yet and don’t have confidence. It’s about them never finding that,” Rivera said. “I think that you need to learn and get the opportunity to participate in these activities in order to better yourself and the person you want to be.”
The programs also provide motivation for students who aren’t otherwise excited about coming to school, she said, echoing a point made by a number of board members and school officials earlier this month.
“You’re going to leave a lot of students without an outlet. Kids that are young and that are moldable to whatever they find, if they find the wrong outlet, then they can become the wrong adult,” Rivera said. “As an adult, how can you not vote yes to protect the people of your community?”
Junior Mei Lin Jackson, who plays percussion in the marching band, said performing with the band at football games has been among her favorite experiences at NHS. However, with the football program eliminated and the band director laid off, that won’t be an option next year unless the referendum passes.
“Cutting football and cutting those experiences would just rob us of the fun,” Jackson said.
Lobo said it’s been hard watching teachers he admires lose their jobs.
“It’s just sad that teachers aren’t being appreciated by the community, because they’re the people who really shape the lives of what the community’s going to look like later on in the future,” he said.
Despite other elections being delayed by the pandemic, the referendum remains scheduled for June 9.
Officials are encouraging residents to vote by absentee ballot, which can be obtained at ivote.de.gov. There will be polling places open, but the Delaware Department of Elections reduced the number from 28 to 10.
Rivera has a simple message for people preparing to cast their ballots.
“You’ve got to find it in your heart to vote yes and give us students a chance to enjoy school and to learn traits and everything from extra-curriculars,” she said. “We’re the next generation of doctors and lawyers and everything in between. You have to give us the schooling that you got and give us the student life that will get us to the point of becoming a model citizen just like you are. We need you just as much as you’ll need us.”
Details of the referendum
The May 12 vote by the school board resulted in the layoffs of 67 employees and the elimination of all sports teams, the Chinese immersion program, academic enrichment classes for gifted students, certain music programs and more.
If things go as board members hope, and voters approve the referendum, the cuts will be restored. However, a failed referendum would mean the deep cuts would stay in effect. The board had to decide on the cuts earlier this month because it was contractually obligated to provide notice by May 15 to any teachers who will be laid off.
The referendum would increase school taxes as well as allow the district to take on $10 million in debt to expand Downes Elementary, upgrade the Newark High auditorium and complete other renovation projects. A successful referendum would cover rising costs and restore the recent cuts as well as other reductions made after last year’s referendum failed.
If the referendum is approved in its entirety, average residents would see their taxes increase by approximately $290 over three years.
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. Christina’s last successful referendum came in 2016.