By Terry Rogers
On Tuesday, May 5, Milford voters chose not to support a combined operations and construction referendum proposed by the Milford School District. There were 2,074 votes against the request to raise taxes, a margin of 54 percent and 1,700 votes to approve the increase in taxes, representing a margin of 46 percent.
“I don’t know what we are going to do,” Dr. Phyllis Kohel, Superintendent, said. “We are out of money. We will have to go back out for another operations referendum. By cutting one million out of the budget, we have gotten one more year, but that means we only have one year before we can no longer meet expenses and the state will step in to take over as they had to do in Laurel.” Dr. Kohel said that overcrowding in schools continues to be a problem and that there were modular classrooms throughout the district to provide enough classroom space for the growing student population. However, she also said that without passage of the operations referendum, the district had no money to add more modular units to house the expected growth in enrollment for the upcoming school year.
In March 2014, voters denied the district’s request for an operations increase as well as a request to build a new middle school on the grounds where the old middle school now stands. The district, at the request of the State of Delaware, closed the old middle school in 2013 due to its deteriorating condition. The school has remained vacant since its closure. Maintaining the old building costs the district $200,000 per year.
Milford residents who voted against the referendum had various reasons for doing so. On Facebook, Jennifer Legg, who voted yes, said that people she knew who voted no did so because they had lost faith in the Board of Education. In 2007, voters passed a referendum to build a new middle and elementary school in the district. Instead, Milford Central Academy, which originally housed eighth and ninth graders was built, along with Mispillion Elementary School. Some residents feel that they were misled by the administration with the past referendum and do not trust that they will do as they promised, despite the fact that there was a different superintendent and school board in place when those schools were built.
“Bottom line is right now, everyone wants to point fingers and blame from past decisions,” Ms. Legg posted. “Not everyone wants to be part of the solution. They don’t want to build a bridge and get over it.” A loss of faith in the school board was not the only reason mentioned why people voted against the referendum.
Many residents are questioning why the middle school was allowed to deteriorate to the point it cannot be used. The district says that the cost to bring the building to the minimum standards required by the state is $36 million. Since the state will no longer fund maintenance or repairs to the building, any renovations will be borne completely out of local funds. With the district unable to meet obligations by the end of the 2016 school year, there is no money to rehabilitate the building. Yet, voters say they want to see the old building used rather than sold or torn down. Many residents feel that classrooms could be added to Milford Central Academy or the existing high school, which they feel would be more economical than purchasing land and building a new high school.
Still other citizens say that they voted no because they are frustrated with their taxes rising. For some, the recent decision by state legislators to allow Sussex Technical High School to raise their tax rate without permission of the voting public led them to deny Milford’s request as it was the one area of their property tax they could control. Residents on a fixed income say that it is growing more difficult to pay property taxes and the additional cost added with the passage of the referendum would have created a hardship. A home valued at $150,000, which is the average for Milford School District, would have seen an increase of approximately $19 per month in the third year after the referendum passed. Taxes would only go up slightly less than that for the first two years. After year three, because interest would have been paid on the bonds used for construction, taxes would go down slightly each year as they have with referendums in the past.
“While the outcome of the referendum devastated many of us, we must persevere,” said Yvette Dennehy, leader of Buccaneer Tomorrow, a group of parents who worked with the district and city officials to develop a vision for the district’s future that included passage of the referendum for a new high school. “I have used the last day to grieve and also gain some perspective. We have made a huge impact on this community and have alerted many people to the fact that their voices do make a difference. We must stick together, address the issues and continue to work for the greater good of our children and our community.” Ms. Dennehy is running for a vacant seat on Milford’s Board of Education and an election is scheduled for Tuesday, May 12.
Dr. Phyllis Kohel said that she was proud of the work Buccaneer Tomorrow had done in getting the message out to the public. She praised Ms. Dennehy and Danny Vezmar, another Milford parent, for working tirelessly to educate citizens on the urgent need to pass the referendum. However, the fact that the referendum did not pass means the district must make some hard decisions, said Kohel.
“With the loss of the referendum, we will be forced to make further cuts throughout the district,” Dr. Kohel said. “We spent most of the day Wednesday looking at programs and positions we could either not fill or cut. Currently, we have two teaching positions that will not be filled along with a secretarial and custodial position. We are also cutting an administrative level position, Director of Teaching and Learning, and the responsibilities of that position will be shared among a number of us.” Dr. Kohel said that they have put a freeze on hiring until they get a better handle on the enrollment for the next school year. She stated that these cuts were just the beginning.
Dr. Kohel said that cuts will be made to athletics, clubs and extra-curricular programs in the coming days. She also said that she understood that no one wants their taxes raised, but that is the only means that the district has of raising funds.
“I would not be doing my job if I didn’t do what I think is right for the district and our students,” Dr. Kohel said. “Going out for a second referendum was in no way a sign of disregard for this community’s opinions based on the first referendum as one gentleman said to me today. It is out of respect for our district, our parents and our students that we needed to try again. Unfortunately, we will now be forced to make some deep cuts that can affect our teachers and our students, and I wish to apologize to them for what the future might hold.”
Dr. Kohel said the only thing that would help the district now was support for an operations referendum, saying that it was sad that they may have to turn to the state for assistance when the district has always done the best it can do with what it has.