Seaford referendum plans moving ahead, despite member objection

By Lynn R. Parks

The Seaford School District is moving ahead with plans to convince the community of the need of a $1.5 million tax increase. School board president Mike Smith said that committees with staff members as well as with district employees are being put in place to get the information out ahead of a Feb. 27 referendum.

The case for the referendum will be made by the needs that the district has, Smith said. Additional taxes would help to replace $1.4 million in federal Race to the Top funding that the district received this year and that it wont get next year.

But as the district gears up for the referendum, board member Frank Parks is speaking out publicly against the tax hike. He argues that the district has not followed through with promises that it made before a May 2011 tax hike to pay for renovations to the high school.

In 2011, we put a plan in place and the public voted on it and approved it, Parks said. Now we are saying that we dont want to do that, and we are asking for more money. Im not buying it.

I would like to support the referendum, Parks added. But I want to make sure that we do what we told the public we would do.

The disagreement is over the districts plan, which the board approved in January 2011 in conjunction with a vote to build onto and renovate the high school, to move eighth graders from the middle school into the high school and fifth graders from the four elementary schools into the middle school. Those moves were intended to alleviate overcrowding in the elementary schools.

Parks, who is the only board member remaining from that time, argues that renovations at the high school are sufficiently complete that the moves could be made next school year. But at its Dec. 9 meeting, the same meeting where it voted to move ahead with the referendum, the board voted not to move the students next year. While the high school is still under renovation, such a move would be too hard on students and staff, board president Mike Smith said. And at this time, its not clear what space would be available for eighth graders there, he added.

Renovations are expected to be completed by the fall of 2014. The board intends to look at the overcrowding situation again in April. Thats when we will be able to get an idea of how many classrooms we have and where they are, Smith said. We will be able to make sure we have the best use of our space and that we are meeting the needs of our students and our staff.

In making his case that eighth graders could be moved into the high school in September, Parks, at the Dec. 9 board meeting, said that during a recent tour of the high school, he had counted 20 empty classrooms. In a follow-up email, he said that in a subsequent tour he had counted 29 empty classrooms.

Our high school is tremendously underutilized, he said. Weve got plenty of room there for another grade.

At the Dec. 9 meeting, superintendent Shawn Joseph cautioned Parks about making decisions on classroom use based on just a walk-through tour. It is hard, when you just walk into a school, to make assumptions about what you see, he said. We have data about our high school classrooms, and that data says that we do not have 20 empty classrooms.

Smith, speaking in an interview a week after the board meeting, said that while some classrooms may be empty at certain times during the day, all of the available classrooms at the high school have an assigned use. There is not one unoccupied space in the high school, he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that the high school is not at capacity. In the mids 1990s, long before the addition of the 50,000-square foot Delaware New Tech wing, the school had 1,090 students. Now, about 770 students go there.

Its not that the district wont eventually have to make some moves to help lower class sizes in its elementary school, Smith said. But rather, when we do make this move, we want to make sure that its done properly. With the space as it exists now, we could not do that.

Smith also said that in its January 2011 decision to move fifth and eighth graders, the school board did not work out how best that could be done. Would the eighth graders have their own space in the high school? Would they participate in electives like band and chorus with the high school students, or would they still be part of middle school electives? And would they continue with the middle schools 60-minute class periods, or would they move to the high schools 90-minute class periods?

There are a lot of logistics that have to be looked at, Smith said.

Parks counters that the 2011 board did understand those logistics. According to its plan, the eighth graders would be high school students, he said. They would go to the high school schedule and would participate in high school band, chorus and sports.

And that, Parks said, would be a big advantage of moving the eighth grade to the high school. Our high school is in desperate need of an influx of students, he said. Sports teams like cross country and swimming needs more competitors, he said.

We have the best programs around, we have the best facility, he said. What we dont have are the students.

But Smith argues that in most cases, eighth graders are more comfortable being in middle school activities. And more arent ready to participate in high school sports teams. Allowing them to do so could lead to discouragement and disappointment, and would make the schools teams less competitive, he said.

Smith said that he has no problem with the fact that Parks voted against the district asking for a referendum. I dont expect every vote on the board to be 5 to 0, he said. I expect that, after we have gotten all of the information and looked at all of the data, for board members to vote however they believe.

But he said that after that vote is cast, board members have to move forward.

There have been times that I have disagreed with how a vote has gone, he said. But after a decision is made, I work with the board to make that happen. If I continue to voice my opinion, it can interfere with the ability of the board to continue doing business.

Parks disagrees. Im not there to placate the board and to go along with what it says, he said. I dont believe that just because Im out-voted, that I have to be quiet.

February Referendum planned

The Seaford School District is planning a Feb. 27 referendum on a proposed $1.5 million hike in current expense taxes. The money would help to replace $1.4 million in federal Race to the Top funds that the district got last year and that it wont get again this year.

A third of the funds, $500,000, would go to the districts Delaware New Tech and International Baccalaureate programs, paying for staff, training and materials. About $750,000 would pay for 10 new teachers, two in each of the districts four elementary schools and two in the middle school.

Another $150,000 would enable the district to continue to employ teachers that were hired with Race to the Top funds.

With the remaining $100,000, the district would hire high school and middle school monitors. Those monitors are now employed by a contractor.

School taxes now in the Seaford district are $3.36 per $100 of a propertys assessed value, $2.02 of which is for current expenses. Under the administrations proposal, the current expense portion would go up to $2.76 per $100. At the same time, the districts debt service tax is expected to go down next year, by 16 cents per $100 of a propertys assessed value.

If the referendum is approved, the net increase would be 58 cents per $100. Total school tax would be $3.94 per $100 of assessed value.

For the average home in the district, the hike would mean an additional $98 a year in taxes.

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