By Terry Rogers
Buccaneer Tomorrow, a parent group created to help Milford School District develop a vision and plan for the future, has been busy presenting information to city officials and the public about the upcoming referendum, planned for May 5, 2015. The referendum was originally planned for March 31, 2015, but due to additional requirements placed on the school district by the State of Delaware Department of Education, the vote was pushed back a few months.
On Monday, February 23, the group made a presentation to Milford City Council and on Thursday, March 19, another presentation to the community at Milford Central Academy. An additional public meeting is planned for April 28 at 7pm at Milford Central Academy. During both presentations, the group presented a slideshow demonstrating the need for both a capital improvement and operations referendum. At the Milford Central Academy, Mayor Bryan Shupe explained why the City was supporting the referendum.
“In the past, you may have seen that the City has had one agenda while the school district has had another,” Mayor Shupe said. “We have decided that the city and the district need to have a better coalition. After the failure of the referendum last year, a parent group invited me to join them to see what we could do to improve our school system and develop a vision for 20 to 30 years into the future. There is no question that great schools mean a good economy. I talk to hundreds of people each week in my efforts to bring more businesses to the city, and every one of them asks about the school system.” Mayor Shupe said that business owners want to know that their employees will have quality education when they move to Milford.
Mayor Shupe said that he had spoken to Terry Murphy, CEO of Bayhealth, who plans to build a brand new, state-of-the-art medical facility in south Milford by 2018 about what medical businesses will want in order to choose Milford over another location. Mr. Murphy told him that, unquestionably, it will be a good education system. Mayor Shupe also spoke to officials at L.D. Caulk who told him the school system is what brings high-quality employees to the area.
Yvette Dennehy, who is spearheading the Buccaneer Tomorrow organization, began the slideshow presentation by asking if anyone in the audience had played the “Telephone Game” when they were in school, where the teacher whispers something in one child’s ear and that child whispers into the next child’s ear and so on until the remark has reached everyone in the room.
“If you did, you remember how funny it was when the last person stood up and repeated what they had been told, but it was completely different than what the teacher told the first student,” Ms. Dennehy said. “I think that has been happening a lot in Milford about the school district, but it isn’t all that funny. We are here to present you with facts.”
Ms. Dennehy said that one of the first things she hears when she brings up the referendum is that the district is not fiscally responsible and that she, herself, thought that initially. After visiting the district office and talking to Superintendent Phyllis Kohel as well as Sara Croce, the Chief Financial Officer, she said she learned otherwise.
“The district has 4,203 students enrolled as of 2013-14 and they spend $11,387 per student,” Ms. Dennehy explained. “The state average spent on students is $12,734, so Milford actually spends less per student than other districts in the state. In addition, 54 percent of the teachers in our district have Master’s degrees or higher. Because of funding cuts over the past few years, the district has had to cut tuition reimbursement, yet teachers are still advancing their education using their own money.” Ms. Dennehy also pointed out that Milford has the highest Advanced Placement pass percentage in Kent and Sussex County while the elementary students consistently score in the top ten percent on standardized tests. In addition, Milford has the highest percentage of Nationally Board Certified teachers in the state.
After the failure of the March 2014 referendum asking for funding for a new middle school as well as operations costs, the district reevaluated its needs, Ms. Dennehy said. The realized that the failure of the referendum may actually have been a blessing as it was determined that a new middle school may have only been a temporary solution. Instead, the district felt that a new high school would resolve many of the district’s problems for the long-term.
“The state determines much of what the district must do when it comes to buildings,” Ms. Dennehy stated. “The state uses a formula to determine need and, once the need is determined, they require the district to go to referendum. The district is not even allowed to design the school until the referendum passes. To the question of why now, I would answer that we are down a facility with the closure of the old Middle School, almost all of our schools are overcrowded, we need to recruit good teachers and we need to retain students we are losing to other districts. When students choice out of our district, we lose funding, so we need to do what we can to keep them here.” Ms. Dennehy displayed a slide showing new buildings added to surrounding districts who had passed referendums recently, stating that those buildings were what Milford was competing with.
Hunter Emory, a member of the Milford Board of Education, explained that once they decided to build the new high school, they found the Simpson property across from Redner’s, located on Route 113. The property is 190 acres, which is far above the state required 100 acres and is available at a cost of $3.5 million.
“What many people do not understand is the requirements placed on us by DOE,” Mr. Emory said. “Not only do they tell us how many acres we must have to build the school, they also tell us how many students the school must be built for. We asked for a 1,200-capacity school and DOE told us we needed to build a 1,400-capacity building. They also tell us what our budget will be. In this case, it is $69,203,700. As long as we pass a referendum, the cost to the district will only be around $20 million as the state will pick up 70 percent of the cost of construction.” Mr. Emory said that DOE also tells the district what they must pay for the land based on an appraisal. If a landowner is asking $3 million, and the appraisal comes in at $3.5 million, the district is required to pay the higher amount for the land.
Mr. Emory also explained that the new building would be a turnkey operation as textbooks, technology and other items were included in the budget. He pointed out that Milford’s textbooks were outdated and that, at current operating costs, they were unable to purchase new ones. In addition, the new school could offer expanded programs in arts, gifted and talented, health and pre-medical, hospitality and culinary, early education and JROTC areas. The current building and revenue make it impossible for the district to offer such programs currently.
Many citizens question what will happen to the old Middle School building, which has been vacant for two years. Mr. Emory said that the building held a special place in his heart as his grandfather graduated from there when it was a high school and he had fond memories of attending there as well. Again, Mr. Emory pointed to state requirements that made the building not viable for education. The State’s Facility Condition Index must but 0.5 or less in order for them to continue funding maintenance, repairs or renovations on the building. Milford Middle School’s evaluation was 0.78 and the State of Delaware informed the district they would no longer provide maintenance funds for the building. In order to renovate the building, it would cost the district $36 million in local funds.
At the City Council meeting, Councilman Dirk Gleysteen commented that he had just visited universities with his child and many of them were still using 100-year old buildings. He did not understand why the State would allow University of Delaware to continue using a building that old, but would not allow Milford to renovate the high school.
“There are different qualifications for public education and private education,” said Danny Vezmar, a spokesperson for Buccaneer Tomorrow. “At Caulk, our building is more than 100 years old, but there are areas we cannot use for certain things because of the age. The Middle School is adequate for private use and someone with the funds would be able to renovate it for use fairly easily.”
The district plans to break the property in to two parcels. One will be open green space that will be leased to the City of Milford for $1 per year for use by the citizens of Milford. The building will be placed on the National Register of Historic Places that will then provide a new owner with additional tax incentive and grant monies for renovation. Ms. Croce, Chief Financial Officer at Milford School District, said that the district had been approached by buyers but that they still needed approval from the State to divide the property and sell the building. When asked what would cause the state to say no to the proposal, Ms. Croce explained that there were purchase money issues that needed to be addressed as well as land-ownership issues.
When it came time to discuss the costs of the referendum and what the monies would be used for, Ms. Croce explained that 69 percent of the district budget was in salaries. She explained that only 30 percent of every district employee’s salary was paid through local funds and that no employee in the district was funded 100 percent from local money. In addition, the district had absorbed $3.4 million in costs from state and federal cuts over the past few years.
Mr. Vezmar said that there was no question that the district was asking citizens to make a hard decision. He said as a homeowner himself, this would be money from his budget, but that the benefits far outweigh the costs. According to figures provided by the State of Delaware, the average value for a home in Milford School District is $150,000. For a home appraised at that value, Kent and Sussex County use a formula to determine assessed value, which is $29,250 in Kent and $10,350 in Sussex. 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.
One question asked was whether there was any relief for low-income families who owned their own home but were under the age of 65. According to one member of the audience, Attorney General Matt Denn has recently announced a homeowner assistance plan that may offer help to low-income families struggling with their tax bills. In addition, Ms. Croce pointed out that the numbers presented were for a home valued at $150,000 so if a home was valued at less than that, the tax would also be lower. The district hopes to put a calculator up on their website that would allow a homeowner to enter the assessed value of their home and determine exactly what the change to their taxes would be.
Anyone who lives within the Milford School District who is 18 or older is eligible to vote in the referendum and they do not need to be registered to vote with the State elections office to do so. Voting will take place at Morris Early Childhood Center in Lincoln as well as Lulu Ross, Benjamin Banneker and Mispillion Elementary in Milford. Voters should bring photo identification with them to vote. More information can be found at the Buccaneer Tomorrow website at http://www.buccaneertomorrow.com or by calling the Milford School District Administration Office at 302-422-1600.