By Terry Rogers
On Wednesday, February 19, Delaware legislators from the county and state level held a public forum at the Milford Public Library. The forum was designed to allow citizens to express concerns and ask questions regarding legislation pending in the General Assembly. The legislative panel consisted of Representatives Jack Peterman, Harvey Kenton and Dave Wilson; Senator Gary Simpson; Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Eric Buckson; and Sussex County Council members Sam Wilson and Joan Deaver.
Milford resident, Emmett Vennett, questioned the legislators about the proposed ten cent gas tax that Governor Jack Markell has suggested would fund road projects throughout the state. Mr. Vennett, who has fought for an overpass at the Woods Haven entrance on Route 1, asked if the ten cent gas hike was being used as a weapon to get projects like the overpass funded.
“It seems as if our priority keeps sliding backwards,” said Mr. Vennett. “The city is now considering annexing more property near Carpenter Pit Road, and there are five more lots for sale on Silicato Way, which sits directly off that intersection. It is a disaster waiting to happen. If the gas tax is passed by the legislators, will these projects be moved back to the front burner?” Representative Peterman said that he was concerned about school buses crossing that area of the road, and Commissioner Buckson said that the “numbers spoke for themselves,” proving that the intersection was dangerous.
Jim Clendaniel, another resident who lives in the area, said that one of the problems with the intersection was that DelDOT had closed a portion of the 10th Street intersection at Silicato Way, which had the effect of overloading the intersection at New Wharf Road. He suggested that the stop bars be removed and that cross traffic again be permitted until DelDOT was able to begin construction of the overpass.
“There is no doubt that the road projects pending are being held as a carrot to get us to vote for the gas tax,” Senator Simpson said. “The problem is that money was taken out of the Transportation Trust Fund years ago when there was a surplus, and it has never been replaced. We need to deal with that situation before we start feeding more money into DelDOT using a gas tax, that I feel will have a hard time passing.”
Representative Kenton pointed out that there are three proposed referendums planned for Milford residents in the next year, and he feels that a gas tax is putting an additional burden on those who are struggling already.
“Milford School District is planning a referendum to build a new school,” Representative Kenton explained. “The city is going to referendum for both a new police station and to borrow money for water repairs. Sussex Tech is talking about a referendum that will affect the whole county. I put pencil to paper and these additional taxes are going to cost my wife and I about $495 a year. Can we afford it? Probably, but I don’t want to do it. My question is, when did it become wrong to cut spending rather than raise taxes?”
In addition to questions about road construction in the city, many citizens expressed concern about the state of education in Delaware. Several teachers spoke at the meeting, stating that federal and state mandates were causing significant problems in the classroom, with some special education specialists dealing with more than 100 students, significantly higher than the 25 students recommended by federal guidelines. Others said that there were so many subjects required through mandates that teachers had to give up some of the basics, such as cursive writing.
“I am a sixth grade teacher, but I will not tell you who I am or where I teach,” one woman said. “What needs to return to education is parent and student accountability. In the classroom, I am the only one accountable, and my accountability is determined by a twenty-five question multiple choice test that the kids could care less about. They have no vested interest in passing as there are no consequences to them if they do not pass. There is no consequence to parents in any part of education today. They are not held accountable if the child doesn’t do homework, if they don’t come to school or if they don’t have the supplies they need to function. Yet, I am accountable for their test scores.”
Representative Peterman pointed out that money received by the Race to the Top program was not used properly, as many districts hired administrators rather than using the funds to create programs. Representative Kenton suggested that the quality of public education in Delaware is not aligned with the spending that is currently taking place.
“There is no question that the education system in our state is broken,” Representative Kenton said. “One-third of our budget is education, yet our kids’ rank 46th in the nation. This tells me the system is not working and we need to make some changes.” Senator Simpson agreed with Representatives Peterman and Kenton, stating that too many people were hired under Race to the Top, and now that the funding is ending, those districts will be coming to the legislators to pay those salaries.
“I have to say that the education system is not broken,” said Commissioner Buckson. “It is the bureaucracy that is broken. I am a long-time teacher myself, and my kids are in public schools, so I have a vested interest in good education. We need to sit down as legislators and take a good, long, hard look at areas that can be eliminated to free up money to get things working again.
Other matters discussed at the meeting included midwife laws and the push from the legislators in attendance to eliminate the prevailing wage laws in the state, which they say are costing taxpayers significant amounts of money each year.