On Tuesday, May 12, citizens of Milford voted for an open at-large seat on the Milford School District Board of Education. Yvette Dennehy won the election with 386 votes which represented almost 67 percent of the votes cast. Ronald T. Evans Jr. received 149 votes, almost 26 percent and Kent Delrossi received 44 votes, almost 8 percent.
Ms. Dennehy, who became known in Milford as the face of Buccaneer Tomorrow, a group of parents who are working with the school district to create a long-term vision for the future of Milford schools, says that the biggest problem facing the board this year is a financial one after a referendum for increased taxes to cover operating costs and a new high school failed on May 5, 2015.
“There is no other option, the district is going to have to hold another referendum,” Ms. Dennehy said. “Overcrowding is one issue, but financially, this district is not going to be able to sustain itself for much longer. Although we did an excellent job communicating the message about the referendum that just failed, obviously more work needs to be done. “Ms. Dennehy said she wants to work with the board in bringing a larger variety of citizens to the table in order to understand why people voted no and to see what can be done to change those votes to yes. She said that she hopes to act as an ambassador through her continued work with Buccaneer Tomorrow and other community groups in order to put the district on the path to a successful referendum.
Ms. Dennehy says that until a referendum is passed, the only way the district can address the funding shortfall is by making cuts that will be painful. Since she will not be sworn into office until July, Ms. Dennehy says she will not have a vote on what cuts will be approved. She expects that programming, sports and personnel will be some areas affected by drastic cuts to the district budget, but that there will be even more areas of education that will feel the effects of the funding shortage.
“The bottom line is that teachers and students are going to suffer,” Ms. Dennehy said. “However, even cutting things will not sustain the district for more than a year or two. The district must begin another campaign for a referendum. Perhaps educating the public on what happens to their taxes when the state comes in and takes over a school would be beneficial. It is not something we want to happen.”
Many of the Milford residents who voted no for the referendum in early May claimed that they had lost faith in the school board with many stating that a referendum passed in 2007 was to raise money to build a new middle school and a new elementary school. Instead of a new middle school, however, the district built the Milford Central Academy which only housed eighth and ninth grade, leaving sixth and seventh grade at the old Middle School building which has since been closed due to maintenance issues.
“I cannot speak to the statement regarding mishandled funds in 2007 as I am not well-versed on what promises were or were not made,” Ms. Dennehy said. “However, what I can say is that when a district goes out for referendum, the parameters of what the funds are going to be used for are very specific, so I am not sure where the communication broke down. I do know that it must have because this was definitely a bone of contention during the last referendum, and one of the reasons many people have claimed to have lost faith in the school board.” Ms. Dennehy says that her vision for the school board is to transform its image. She wants the board to take a proactive stance in distributing information and gaining a rapport with the citizens of the community.
One of the visions she has for the district is to make information more easily available to the public. She says that although anyone can attend a school board meeting, many do not, so it is important to use all types of media to get the information about Milford schools in the public eye. One thing she would like to see is town hall style meetings every few months to help the board understand the perception and concerns of citizens. Ms. Dennehy would also like to see the school board working with community groups, such as Downtown Milford Inc., the Chamber of Commerce, Buccaneer Tomorrow and others to create a holistic vision for the district.
“The board must revamp their image and reestablish rapport with the community to build faith,” Ms. Dennehy said. “I think they can do this by making the district’s finances easily accessible. What people do not realize is that less than two percent of funds are discretionary, the rest of the budget is allocated to very specific categories. So, in essence, I think we must be transparent, educate the public, and make sure they feel comfortable with the decisions that are being made. They are stakeholders and should be treated as such. That being said, I would also like to add that what many people do not realize is that if the district had not been so fiscally responsible over the past few years, they would not have been able to sustain themselves for this long without an operational increase. Once again, communication is key.”
Another reason that citizens said led them to vote no not only for the referendum in May 2015, but for a referendum held in March 2014 to build a new middle school as well as for operating costs, was the district’s handling of the old Middle School building. A significant number of residents do not want the historic building torn down and feel the district should renovate the school to continue using it rather than build new schools.
“Honestly, there are not a lot of options for the old middle school building, despite what the community may want to believe,” Ms. Dennehy said. “The district, along with Buccaneer Tomorrow, has tried to get this information out to the public, but for some reason, people just do not want to hear facts. The Delaware Department of Education uses something called a Facilities Condition Index to determine whether or not they will allocate funding for the renovation of the school. The state told the district that the old Milford Middle School does not meet the qualifications and therefore, the state will not give the district any money to renovate it.” Ms. Dennehy said that she has heard citizens say that old buildings are renovated all the time but that doing so to meet public educational requirements for the state is completely different.
The district is continuing to restructure the old Middle School property to allow the community to use the green space while they look for other options for the building. Ms. Dennehy said that she lives just one street from the building, so she has a vested interest in what happens to the property.
Ms. Dennehy said that she would like to see government out of the business of teaching so that teachers determine the best way to teach the children in their classrooms. However, she says that because Milford is struggling financially, they cannot afford to back out of Common Core as other districts have chosen to do.
“I have two children in the district and my first reaction to Common Core math was to throw my hands up,” Ms. Dennehy said. “However, I made it a priority to see my son’s teacher for a little parent tutorial and that made all the difference. Parents need to be involved and if we come together, we can at least try to make the best of what we’ve been given for the moment and, hopefully, work on making a change in the not too distant future.” As for state testing, Ms. Dennehy said that she believes teachers need time to teach and, although she believes there must be a method for testing a student’s progress, she believes that students are over-tested.
Ms. Dennehy said that she supports a parent’s right to opt-out of state testing, but she also sympathizes with districts who are trying to conform to dictates from the state, which is where she sees the real problem. She believes districts across the state need to take a stand in order to initiate change at the state level.