Teachers and students in the Christina School District can breathe a sigh of relief, as voters approved the district's operating and capital referenda Tuesday night.
Residents overwhelmingly supported a tax hike, with nearly 70 percent of people voting yes for all four questions.
“I think it proves that the community believes that Christina School District is a district that they can trust,” district spokeswoman Alva Mobley said shortly after the results were announced. “Somewhere in there, I believe there's trust again where there wasn't before. The tide is turning, and people believe that they can trust us to be good stewards of their money and they can trust us to provide a quality education.”
The operating referendum will raise taxes for the average resident by $282 over three years and generate an additional $24 million per year. The money will relieve the district's budget deficit, allowing the district to meet rising costs, upgrade technology, recruit and retain staff and purchase a new English-Language Arts curriculum.
It also means that the district can reverse the deep budget cuts made last month, when the school board voted to eliminate 67 permanent teacher jobs, 69 temporary teacher contracts, six academic deans, 21 paraprofessionals and 10 percent of the clerical staff. It also eliminated all athletic programs, the popular Chinese immersion program, academic enrichment classes, extracurricular activities and more and decided not to fill eight vacant administrative positions.
The school board pledged to restore those cuts if the referendum passed and is expected to address them during its meeting Wednesday evening.
Meanwhile, approval of the capital referendum gives Christina authorization to borrow approximately $10 million to pay for several large renovation projects, including renovating science labs at Christiana High, building four new classrooms at Downes Elementary to expand the Chinese immersion program, renovating the auditorium at Newark High and repairing infrastructure at Christina Early Education Center, Marshall Elementary and Leasure Elementary.
Taxes will increase by an additional $8 per year to pay off the bonds.
"I want to thank the voters of the Christina School District for saying 'yes' to the 14,000 plus students for whom we are charged with providing quality education," Meredith Griffin, president of the Christina School Board, said in a prepared statement. "The success of this operating and capital referendum ensures that our dedicated professionals can move forward with retaining, rebuilding, and restoring the Christina School District. I also want to thank every single person, too many to name, who worked tirelessly to ensure the success of this referendum."
The margin of victory was nearly 5,000 votes, a far cry from the last two times Christina passed a referendum. In 2016, a referendum passed by 145 votes, and in 2010, a referendum passed by just 26 votes.
"We are thrilled with the outcome of today’s referendum and are extremely appreciative of the student-centered efforts of the CSD district leadership team, administrators and building leaders, teachers, staff, parents, and community members," Superintendent Richard Gregg said in a prepared statement. "This successful referendum will provide the necessary resources for Christina School District to move forward to provide continued meaningful experiences our students deserve. Thank you to the Christina School District community for your support of your public schools especially during these extremely challenging times – it is much appreciated."
Mobley thanked all the parents, community members and even students who helped rally support for the referendum.
“I just wanted to start crying because I started thinking about all the videos that these little kids made. I mean, not just the involvement by the adults, but just how the kids got involved. In one video, this little girl was pretty much just the whole time saying, ‘Please, please help us and vote for us’ and it was so touching,” Mobley said. “They made signs, little videos. The first thing that ran through my mind was, these kids are going to be so happy.”
The Friends of Christina School District, a parent-led advocacy group that helped campaign for the referendum, held a virtual watch party over Zoom on Tuesday night. Group members analyzed the results as they trickled in, and the mood quickly turned celebratory as it became clear the referendum would pass.
"This is amazing. Well done," said Mary Schorse, a leader of the group.
In remarks to the group, school board member Keeley Powell noted that the fight isn’t over, urging parents to stay engaged. She also asked state legislators to get serious about reforming how education is funded in Delaware.
“I'm so happy we won tonight, but we were playing a very difficult game to win during a global pandemic,” Powell said. “I'm glad it happened, but every time we talk, I'm going to be asking you to look at ways that you can help improve the way that we fund schools in Delaware, because school funding is a social justice and civil rights issue.”
Voters faced long lines at the polls
Tuesday's referendum saw nearly twice the turnout as 2019, when voters rejected Christina's referendum. Approximately 10,500 people voted at polling places, and another 3,500 voted via absentee ballot.
Polling places were crowded throughout the day, and at several, there were dozens of voters still in line when the polls closed at 8 p.m. Those who were already in line were still allowed to vote.
At Downes Elementary, the last voters cast their ballots after 9 p.m. after waiting more than 90 minutes.
Tim Slavin said that when he arrived at Downes around 7:45 p.m., the line extended through the parking lot and down the street to the intersection of Casho Mill Road and Pheasant Run. The long wait was still worth it to support the referendum, he said.
"My son just graduated from Newark," Slavin said. "He was in the music program."
Sasha Aber was one of the last in line and said she had driven by twice earlier in the day, but the line was too long. It was well past 9 p.m. by the time she cast her "yes" vote - a decision she said she made in order to help preserve extracurricular activities for the schools.
"We need to keep enjoyment and arts in the schools," she said.
Rick Sylves said his wife had to stand in the hot sun for 90 minutes to cast her ballot earlier in the day, and his wait was approaching the same length.
Sylves, who serves on the city of Newark's election board, said he fears the long lines will discourage people from voting in future elections, such as Newark's council election on July 28.
"This is suppressing turnout in future elections," he said. "This is unforgivable."
The state election department, which is responsible for running school elections, reduced the number of polling places from 28 to 11 due to the difficulty in finding poll workers during the pandemic. Mobley said there were fewer polling machines at each location, and several didn’t’ work. Also complicating matters was that poll workers had to sanitize the machines between each voter.
Mobley said she believes there were hundreds of people who left without voting because of the lines.
“It was just a pile on of things that maybe could have been done better. Of course, they were doing the best they could,” Mobley said. “Maybe this is a trial run that will help with any improvements for the upcoming elections.”