The future of the Christina School District rests in the hands of voters, who will go to the polls Tuesday to cast their ballot in the district’s referendum.
A successful referendum would mean a restoration of budget cuts, a new English Language Arts curriculum and renovations to several schools, including upgrades to the Newark High auditorium, improved science labs at Christiana High and an addition to Downes Elementary School.
A failed referendum will mean that more than 130 teachers will be out of a job, the popular Chinese immersion program will end, and students will return to school this fall to find nearly all of their extracurricular activities gone, including sports, orchestra, marching band and other activities.
“The vote on June 9 is an important day for every child in Christina,” district spokeswoman Alva Mobley said.
Christina is holding both an operating referendum and a capital referendum simultaneously.
The operating referendum seeks permission from residents to raise taxes in order to meet rising costs, restore past budget cuts, upgrade technology, recruit and retain staff and purchase a new English-Language Arts curriculum. If approved, taxes for the average resident would increase by $282 per year, with the increase phased in over three years.
The capital referendum seeks authorization for Christina to borrow approximately $10 million to pay for several large renovation projects. If approved, taxes would increase by an additional $8 per year to pay off the bonds.
Referenda are a fact of life for school districts in Delaware because of the way the state funds education. While districts receive some state and federal funding, they are responsible for making up the rest with local school taxes. However, unlike state and municipal governments, school boards do not have the authority to raise taxes without a referendum.
On average, Delaware school districts must pass a referendum every three to five years just to keep up with rising costs. In the past six years, all but one district in the state has held at least one referendum.
Christina’s last successful operating referendum was in 2016, and its last capital referendum was in 2007.
School board member Claire O’Neal noted after two failed referenda in 2015, the district scaled back its request in 2016, and the approved tax increase was estimated to keep the budget balanced for only two years.
“Now, we’re four years later,” O’Neal said. “It’s time.”
In 2019, after a referendum failed, the district made a number of cuts, including the elimination of 63 teaching positions.
With the district facing a $10 million shortfall for this coming year, a second failed referendum will have an even deeper impact.
Last month, in order to meet the deadline for notifying teachers of pending layoffs, the school board voted to eliminate 67 permanent teacher jobs, 69 temporary teacher contracts, six academic deans, 21 paraprofessionals, 10 percent of the clerical staff and the entire maintenance staff. It also eliminated athletic programs, academic enrichment classes, extracurricular activities and more and decided not to fill eight vacant administrative positions.
Board members have pledged to restore the cuts if the referendum passes.
Over the past few months, district employees, parent volunteers and even students have embarked on a campaign to build support for the referendum – a task made harder by social distancing requirements due to the pandemic.
Instead of holding in-person forums and events, Christina held two online town hall meetings and has used social media to spread its message, Mobley said. The district also mailed information about the referendum to the 90,000 households within Christina’s boundaries.
Mobley noted that passing a referendum benefits all students who live in Christina, even those who attend charter schools, because part of the funding follows the student.
O’Neal said she’s seen a very different reaction to the referendum this year than she did last year.
“Last year, people who might have been inclined to vote for it didn’t take it seriously,” she said.
However, the drastic cuts announced last month hit home for many Christina families.
“Every parent I’ve talked to is mobilized to go out and vote,” O’Neal said. “There’s been a groundswell of support throughout the district.”
Beyond the official campaign, the district has seen a number of grassroots efforts as well. A group of Newark High students founded the Yellowjackets for Yes effort to encourage the adults in their life to vote yes, and a group of Downes Elementary parents is coordinating a project to hand out fliers door-to-door in support of the referendum.
“I think the message is being heard in all corners,” O’Neal said, noting that groups such as United Way and the Newark Branch NAACP have endorsed the referendum.
She acknowledged that Delaware’s system for funding schools is far from ideal, but it’s important for parents to vote yes, because that’s the only way to prevent schools from being underfunded.
“It’s our duty to step up and vote yes,” she said. “We have to do our job now for the students and our schools.”