Seaford School District takes budget concerns to City Hall

By Tony E. Windsor

Representatives of Seaford School District administration and the Board of Education addressed the City Council to express frustration at statewide inequities in funding which they say threaten the future of education in the area. During the Tuesday, March 11, meeting of Seaford Mayor and Council, Lynn Lester, director of Administrative Services for the district, and Board member Donna Zakrewski, told council members that it was important that the school district share concerns about budgetary issues as a means to “expand influence” at the state level. Zakrewski said that because the state bases how much funding it will allocate each school district on the local real estate property values, there is a vast discrepancy in how these funds are distributed. “Some of the neediest students have the least financial backing,” she said. “The funding mechanism is not equal school district to school district, child to child.” The Seaford School District operates under a current budget of about $47 million. Lester explained that there are 155 different funding sources that are part of the overall budget, but most of the funds are program-specific, such as those from the federal government. She said at a funding rate of about $23 million, the state is the largest source of revenue for the district. But, like the program-specific funds, the district has little control over how the bulk of these monies are applied to the budget because it goes largely for staff support. She said the balance of school staff salaries and benefits must come from local dollars. Lester said out of the $47 million that makes up the district’s budget, the Board of Education only has discretionary power over about $9.5 million, or less than 20 percent. As much as 75 percent of local funds are used to support employee salaries and benefits. This leaves only about 25 percent of local funds to address the needs of the classroom. Because state funding is based on real estate property values, less wealthy districts, such as those located in western Sussex County, receive the smallest allocations of school funding. Though property tax rates are similar from community to community, actual real estate property assessments have not been updated regularly and lead to vast funding discrepancies among the school districts. For example, according to information presented by Lester and Zakrewski, Seaford’s property tax rate ($1.34 per $100 of assessed property value) is actually a penny higher than that of the Cape Henlopen School District ($1.33 per $100 of assessed property value). However, because real estate property values are assessed higher in the Cape Henlopen School District, it is able to generate more than five times the revenue that the Seaford School District generates. For every penny of Seaford’s real estate tax rate, the district raises about $16,100. Cape Henlopen on the other hand, raises about $63,033 for every penny of property tax rate. Since there are 4,158 students in the Cape Henlopen School District, this amounts to $2,009 per student. In Seaford there are 3,376 students. Per student spending is $639. She said in order to enhance per student funding in Seaford and raise it to the necessary level, it would require a $2.19 local property tax increase; “an impossible, burdensome tax rate.” Lester said she did not want anyone to interpret the district’s budgetary concerns as a plan to move toward a tax referendum, but given the economic climate in Delaware, the state may leave little choice. Recent history shows that many communities do not support increases through school district referendums. This is largely because these referendums represent the only time the taxpayer has the voting power to decide whether taxes will increase. Lester said that technical schools, including Sussex Tech and Poly Tech high schools, do not have to pass referendums in order to meet budget concerns. These schools simply go directly to the state legislature with their budget requests. This is one of the inequities among school districts that Seaford wants that state to reconsider. Lester said state budget woes have created additional burdens on the Seaford School District. Recently Gov. Ruth Ann Minner asked school districts to voluntarily give back state funds to help meet Delaware’s budget deficit. “We are forecasting to lose about $300,000 out of our next year’s budget,” Lester said. “We are not sure what programs will get the hit because of this funding loss.” Lester said the bottom line is that there are more and more requirements placed on local funds, but these local, discretionary funds are not growing fast enough. She and Zakrewski said it is important to build a grassroots consortium of “school district stakeholders” who can help influence the state to reconsider how it funds local school districts and develop a more equitable funding process. “We are not here to prepare for a referendum,” Lester said. ‘We are facing some tough financial decisions and we want to make out issues known. Woodbridge, Delmar and Laurel have similar issues, and we believe by educating our stakeholders we can expand our circle of influence and help convince the state that something has to be done.” Seaford City Manager Dolores Slatcher said while she can applaud the district’s attempts to get its message to the state, she feels there will most likely be little response. “I think what the state will tell you, is that it is operating in a deficit mode and while they understand your problem, they are not able to assist you,” she said.

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