In the fall of 2014, Yvette Dennehy, the parent of two children in Milford School District (MSD), gathered a group of like-minded parents to begin a dialog with the district in order to motivate change. She wanted to create an organization that would work with the Milford School District Board of Education to find solutions to issues that face the district. The group, known as Buccaneer Tomorrow, has met with Superintendent Phyllis Kohel, Milford Education Association representatives Shawn Snyder and Kevin DiCostanzo as well as Mayor Bryan Shupe in an effort to formulate a long-term vision for Milford School District.
“The children of our community deserve to have access to a great education,” Mrs. Dennehy said. “They should not have to leave their hometown to get it.” Mrs. Dennehy said that the group is working to help get the message out to the public regarding the need for passage of a referendum, scheduled for May 5, 2015.
Currently, there are approximately 20 members of Buccaneer Tomorrow. Ben Muldrow, a local resident and marketing consultant, is working with the group pro-bono in order to help them design a message that will be presented to the public through a series of community information nights. Mrs. Dennehy says that it is critical to the children of Milford for the referendum to pass.
“Over the past few years, all schools in Delaware have had to absorb extra costs because of cuts at both the federal and state levels,” Mrs. Dennehy said. “Milford has done an excellent job in finding ways to adapt, but programs have had to be cut and the district has had to go into deficit spending. According to Sara Croce, MSD Chief Financial Officer, the district has absorbed $3.4 million in new expenses or funding cost.
The district and the parent group also agrees that overcrowding in the Milford schools has become a challenge that is not going away. Both groups point to a study facilitated by the University of Delaware Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research that suggests Milford School District enrollment will increase over the next ten years, gaining, on average, about 55 students per year for the first five years and about 41 students per year over the last five years. This increase in student population will cause all of Milford School District schools to become overcrowded unless the district can pass a referendum for construction of a new school.
“Our schools are overcrowded,” said Dennehy. “We lost an entire facility a few years ago when the Department of Education determined that the old middle school was no longer a viable site for education.”
In 2011, the Delaware Department of Education made it clear to school officials that due to the age and condition of Milford Middle School, the state would no longer fund any major construction for the building. In 2013, the district chose to close the building after several construction consultants and engineers discovered that the building’s structure, electrical and heating systems were beyond repair.
On March 26, 2014, citizens went to the polls to vote on two referendum questions, including a tax increase to build a new middle school as well as an increase in operational funding. The new school vote failed to pass by more than 54 percent (1014 votes against; 839 votes for) while the operations referendum failed by just over 55 percent (1078 votes against; 766 votes for).
In September 2014, the board voted to hold another referendum in March 2015 in order to build a new, 1400 student high school as well as for operations costs. Due to a request by the Delaware Department of Education that required Milford School District to submit a second assessment for the land proposed for the new high school, school officials have pushed the referendum date back to May 5. The district has been approved by the State of Delaware Office of Management and Budget for a $69,493,700 loan for the purchase of the land and construction, pending final approval from the Preliminary Land Use Service, the Governor’s budget and the passage of a referendum. The state will pay 70 percent, around $48,645,600, of the cost of the new school with the district responsible for 30 percent, which is around $20,848,100.
Mrs. Dennehy also pointed out that there are a number of students who leave Milford each year in order to attend charter or technical schools and that the number of students leaving the district is much higher than those using school choice to attend the Milford district. She said that each time a student leaves Milford to attend another district, Milford loses the funding and teaching units that go along with those students.
“In many cases, students are leaving to go elsewhere because other schools are able to offer competitive programming that we cannot,” Mrs. Dennehy said. “The current high school facility does not have the room to add any of these programs, and the district does not have the money to fund them. Passing this referendum will allow the district to redistribute grade levels, which will offer room for growth in all student populations.” Mrs. Dennehy said that passage of the referendum would also allow space and funding that districts surrounding Milford, many of whom have been able to build new facilities after residents in their district passed referendums, are offering. She feels that this will encourage students to remain in their hometown rather than attending school in surrounding districts.
“I do not think anyone would argue that our students do not deserve a great education,” said Mrs. Dennehy. “The main argument against passing a referendum is about money. Yes, this referendum is going to cost the taxpayer’s money. Our presentation clearly explains the impact the extra cost will have on the average homeowner. I am a homeowner and taxpayer myself, so I understand the concern, but I also feel the cost is minimal compared to what our investment will yield over the next 20 years.”
According to Milford School District, passage of the referendum would mean an increase of a maximum of $19 per month or $228 a year in year three for a home valued at $150,000. Homeowners who are 65 years of age or older are eligible for a credit against regular school property taxes of 50 percent, up to $500. To qualify, homeowners may file an application for the credit and submit it to the county where they live.
“This referendum is a plus for the Milford community,” said Mrs. Dennehy. “Milford is poised for economic growth, and a competitive school district is essential for attracting incoming business and residents. But our movement, Buccaneer Tomorrow, is not just about passing a referendum; it’s a collaborative effort between parents, citizens, the school district, the business community and the City to make Milford the best that it can be.”